Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.

Christ

Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.

overhead

 

Advertisements

Art News Roundup: Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s Couch Edition

Perhaps the most famous quip – among many – made by President Theodore Roosevelt’s rather infamous eldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980), which she embroidered on a throw pillow displayed in her home, was “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” For the most part, I try to be positive about what I write here, pointing to items which I find interesting and which, I hope, my readers will find interesting as well. But sometimes, you have to sit right down next to Mrs. Longworth on her couch, and have a good chin wag over the nonsense which those of us who cover the art world are forced to put up with on a daily basis.

Take the current fawning of the art establishment over the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) for example. I suppose that, on the whole, one should be grateful when the black turtleneck brigade occasionally deigns to recognize that Western art existed before the 20th century. In the last few years, Gentileschi has become the darling of those who generally eschew sacred art and Old Master painting, because she has been made to fit into the narrative of contemporary feminism. Art media types – many of whom couldn’t distinguish a Frans Hals from a Franz Winterhalter – have been going into raptures over her art of late, resulting in a sudden spike in the commercial value of her paintings.

Yet when you look at her work as a whole, Artemisia turns out to be a bit of an Artemisi-yawn. She mostly painted herself (with her crazy, rolling eyes) dressed up as someone else: Cleopatra, Lucretia, a saint, etc. When she wasn’t painting rather lifeless and unappealing nudes, her preferred party trick as an artist was typically something involving men abusing women, or women getting revenge on men, or Judith doing something with the head of Holofernes, or women injuring themselves. Her paintings are often cold, bitter, and derivative of the work of other artists such as Caravaggio (1571-1610), her own father Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639), and others. No doubt she had talent, but there were plenty of other Italian Baroque painters whose abilities far exceeded hers, who remain largely unknown or unappreciated outside of specialist circles today.

Now, before everyone rushes to Gentileschi’s defense, I fully recognize that her tragic personal history no doubt influenced both her outlook on the world and the way she portrayed it on canvas. Nor should anyone assume that I am so stupid as to dismiss the work of a great artist because of her sex. As a matter of fact, I’m heading to Philadelphia this weekend to see a major retrospective on the work of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), the greatest of all the women Impressionist painters, and in my opinion a far better artist than, say, her undeservedly more famous contemporary Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).

But the truth of the matter is, while Gentileschi could certainly paint, she really wasn’t anything all that special. In this day and age of course, saying so goes against the popular grain. It’s like pointing out that Beyoncé could do with a vocal coach because she doesn’t actually sing very well: as an aside, it was beyond presumptuous of her to imagine that she could play the great Etta James on film, for example, when she clearly doesn’t have the pipes for it. By all means, go have a wander through the interwebz and check out Gentileschi’s work for yourself, but I suspect you’ll eventually come to the same conclusion that I have.

Assuming that Mrs. Longworth hasn’t asked us to leave at this point, let’s settle into our seats and have a few other strongly-worded things to say, as we look at some of the current news from the art world.

Burne-Jones Burn

In what must be one of the most scathing reviews of Pre-Raphaelite art written since the movement appeared in the 19th century, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones himself goes against the popular grain to let us know exactly why he can’t stand the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), who is the subject of a major retrospective that just opened at Tate Britain in London. The review points out – quite rightly, I might add – that after Burne-Jones settled into his artistic style in his early 20’s, he basically stagnated for the next forty years. Looking across the breadth of the artist’s output over such a long career, one comes to realize fairly quickly that his maidens are interchangeable, his monsters aren’t in the least bit scary, and on the whole everyone in his pictures seems to be utterly bored to death. While I don’t completely agree with some of Mr. Jones’ comparators, I do whole-heartedly agree with his conclusions, even though I realize that this risks my alienating those of you who had posters of this sort of thing in your college dorm room. “Edward Burne-Jones” opened at Tate Britain yesterday, and runs through February 24th.

Perseus

The Beacon Gets Lit

A “painting” [shudder] by Contemporary artist Mary Corse (1945-) caught on fire yesterday at the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, New York, home of the Dia Art Foundation. Ms. Corse creates minimalist works that combine things like canvas, tile, plywood, and electrical elements, into objects that look like bus shelter advertising frames without adverts which, for reasons best explained by others, are considered to be terrific art by those with more money than sense. Fortunately, no one was injured in the conflagration, but the piece, valued by some fool at $1 million, was significantly damaged. No word from the museum on which of Ms. Corse’s works was the culprit.

Museu

Ludicrous in Liverpool

It seems a bit off to me, in an age of constant complaints about “cultural appropriation”, that the art establishment would pay tribute to Contemporary sculptor Ugo Rondinone (1964-), an Italian-Swiss artist who lives in New York, for creating a prominent work for the city of Liverpool in the form of a contemporary totem sculpture. [N.B. It’s really just a pile of rocks painted with what looks like poster paint, rather than a sculpture, but there you are.] If the Scouser alderfolk actually wanted such an object, and I’m not sure what one would be doing in Liverpool, there are plenty of indigenous sculptors in the Americas who possess actual artistic talent for such things. No doubt they would have loved the possibility of creating such a public piece, rather than seeing it entrusting it to someone who is ripping off their culture in the most childish-looking way possible. My recommendation would be to dump this awful thing into the River Mersey and start over.

Crap

 

Da Vinci Delayed: The Art Press Wants Scandal, And Wants It Now

After all the hullabaloo over the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million at Christie’s New York, as I commented on in The Federalist, speculation immediately turned to who bought it, and what they were going to do with it. In the end, it emerged that the picture had been purchased by the Saudi Minister of Culture, on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi. The plan was to put the piece on display at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, which had just opened shortly before the sale.

Originally slated to go on view September 18th, just two weeks prior the Ministry suddenly announced “the postponement of the unveiling,” and that “[m]ore details will be announced soon.” Initial speculation was that the museum wanted to hold off until the 1st anniversary of the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi on November 11th. Creature of scandal that it (mostly) is however, the art press immediately went into scavenger mode, trying to find any scrap of information or rumor to explain the cause of the delay. It simultaneously began to cast aspersions on a picture which, only a year earlier, commentators had been fawning over, their reviews causing the public to flock to see the panel in droves.

The Art Newspaper, for example, invited “Salvator Mundi” skeptic Matthew Landrus, a Da Vinci expert at Oxford, to flesh out his argument that the painting was not an original piece exclusively from the hand of Leonardo, but rather was created by Leonardo with significant input from one of his best-known studio assistants, Bernardino Luini (c. 1480-1532). If you’ve ever seen his work, Luini gives you an idea, albeit a slightly second-rate idea, of what Leonardo could have done with his talent if he had ever managed to get his act together.

Of course, Landrus was not arguing that Leonardo never touched the painting. Rather, he made a reasoned argument that assistants in Leonardo’s studio played a significant part in the execution of the piece, and he thinks that Luini is one of the more likely candidates. That’s as may be, but this is something of an academic debate, rather than a cause célèbre for the art press to go into a tizzy over.

Then over the weekend, The Guardian published a piece by art critic Jonathan Jones arguing that the real problem with the “Salvator Mundi” was that it had been over-restored. Images of what the painting looked like before it was cleaned and the missing bits filled in are certainly quite shocking to the untrained eye. In its pre-conservation state, it looks as though you just got home from work to find the cat had got at one of your most prized possessions in your absence (and I know whereof I speak.)

Jones believes that the piece should have been left as it was, damage and all. He preferred the panel in its “raw yet beautiful state”, subsequent to the removal of all of the years of dirt and bad restoration work that sat atop the original surface. “Wasn’t that an incredible object in itself?” he asks. To me, this sounds rather like those who argued that the Sistine Chapel should never have been cleaned, because they maintained that Michelangelo’s frescoes looked better when they were covered in dust and soot.

In pursuing these narratives however – assistant work vs. over-restored – the art press needs to tread lightly: as usual, it doesn’t think about the consequences of these particular lines of reasoning.

If you study art history at all, you quickly learn that most highly successful Old Master painters, including not only Leonardo, but other art giants such as Raphael, Rubens, and Titian, had so many commissions to complete that they could not do all of it themselves. Oftentimes, these artists would come up with the design for a picture, and the bulk of it would be painted by their assistants. The boss would come in later to work on specific areas, such as the head, hands, or touch-ups. Moreover, many popular Modern and Contemporary artists, from Andy Warhol to Ai Weiwei, have employed assistants to help bring their works to fruition.

Is the art press really intending to argue that, because assistants participated in the creation of this particular Leonardo, that therefore it’s not really a Leonardo? What would that do to overall buyer and institutional confidence in the Modern and Contemporary Art market, where the use of assistants in generating works of art is heavily practiced? Why, for example, should the city of Paris be paying American Contemporary artist Jeff Koons millions of dollars for a sculpture which he himself only designed, rather than sculpted with his own hands?

As to whether the “Salvator Mundi” was over-restored, here too we find a bit of a slippery slope argument for the art press to ponder. I’m no art restorer, but looking at the piece as it was, and indeed as is pointed out in Jones’ article, there was more than enough left of the original surface for an art restorer to go in and fill in the missing bits. As it happens, in the weeks to come you’ll be seeing a piece from me in The Federalist about a Baroque painting which I’ve just had professionally cleaned and restored, instead of leaving in the grimy, dirty, flaking state in which I found it at auction.

Does the art press want to argue that any work of art which suffers damage should be left in its damaged state? Should we leave some works, such as Velázquez “Rokeby Venus” in the National Gallery in London, which was slashed by a suffragette in 1914, in a damaged state based on the nature of the attack made on them? What about rediscovered works that don’t look so great? Why is it acceptable to take 9 months to a year to clean and restore a painting by crazy-eyed one-trick pony Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)? Because that’s who The Guardian is pushing at the moment?

Interestingly, Jones’ pointing out that, prior to restoration, there appeared to be two right thumbs on the hand of Christ goes to my earlier statement regarding the work of the master on the painting. In art history, the term “pentimento” describes changes made by the artist as he is in the process of executing a picture. There are examples of pentimenti (plural) in many famous paintings, most of which are not visible to the naked eye because they get covered up by the artist when the painting is finished. Tthese changes can often be revealed through x-rays and other technology.

As a general rule, pentimenti tend to indicate that the work which one is looking at is the real thing. Copies by assistants don’t have these changes, because they are simply copies of something that already exists; no further changes are needed to the already-set composition. To Landrus’ argument then, the presence of this double thumb would at least tend to show that Leonardo did work on this painting, though how much of it is actually by his direct hand is open to debate.

At the same time, the double thumb pokes holes in Jones’ argument that the painting is over-restored. Leonardo would never have allowed a “raw” painting to leave the studio. Like any artist of his time, he would have intended for the painting to be corrected, and the pentimento covered over, whether by himself or by his assistants. A 15th century Italian or French Renaissance patron would never have accepted a weird, mutant double-thumbed Jesus in their art collection. Not only would such a thing be considered bizarre and unattractive to you as a collector, at a time when perfection and beauty were your life goals – how far we have fallen since – but it might have gotten you in trouble with the Inquisition if they called round.

We don’t know what the holdup is at this point, with respect to putting the “Salvator Mundi” on public display. We do know that, as usual, the art press loves a scandal, and is intent as a British tabloid publisher to create clickbait, even if it turns out that there’s no scandal at all, just an administrative or strategic delay. All we can do now is sit and wait.

Salvator