Art News Roundup: Christmas Carols Edition

For those of you in the DC area, this evening at 7:30 pm is the annual Christmas Concert at St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, located on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW. Our musicians are quite exceptional, as anyone who has visited the parish inevitably comments, thanks both to great talent and the great acoustics of the building itself. The program will include seasonal sacred music composed across many centuries, and will conclude with an audience sing-a-long. A reception will follow in the parish rectory. For more details, please follow this link; hope to see many of you there!

In The Bleak Barcelona

I’ll be heading to Barcelona on vacation in two weeks, and I’m sad to say that the Twelve Days of Christmas there are going to be somewhat dim, thanks to the city’s very dim mayor, failed actress Ada Colau. Not only has Ms. Colau placed an ugly, disrespectful “Nativity” scene by a contemporary artist in front of city hall – which as it turns out cost twice as much as what citizens were originally told it would run – but she now has the unique distinction of having united most of the political parties in the highly fractious region, from left to right, in condemnation of the parsimonious lighting and decorations which the city has installed for the season. Christians are accusing Ms. Colau of deliberately downplaying Christmas, thanks to her hatred of Christianity; secularists are decrying the “gloomy” atmosphere of the city, which will have a chilling effect on the spending of holiday tourists, reduce wages for both union and non-union workers, and thereby cut into anticipated tax revenues. [Ben fet, idiota.]


Jingle All The Way (To The Bank)

You’ll recall that over the summer, I reported on an art dealer who bought an abandoned storage locker in New Jersey full of what at first glance appeared to be minor works of art, but upon closer inspection contained half a dozen late works by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Art Net is now reporting that his $15,000 investment has paid off rather handsomely, to the tune of $2.5 million. Meanwhile, an employee at a local auction house in Derby, England, realized that a ceramic pot he had purchased for around $5 several years ago, and was using as a toothbrush holder in his bathroom, was in fact a Bronze Age artifact dating back about 4,000 years; he recently sold it at auction for about $100. The moral of the story here, kids, is: learn your art history.


Five Golden Rings < One Copper Ring

While we associate the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (died circa 36-39 A.D.) with the events of Holy Week rather than Christmas, a remarkable find in Israel is nevertheless worth mentioning as we consider the age into which Jesus was born. Back in 1968, archaeologists excavating at the Herodium, a vast palace-tomb complex originally built by King Herod the Great just south of Bethlehem, recovered a number of items for analysis, including a copper ring whose inscription was too faded to be clearly read with the naked eye. Now however, thanks to modern imaging technology, the ring has revealed its original inscription bearing Pilate’s name. Scholars believe that it was probably a seal ring used by Pilate’s underlings to sign documents on his behalf, much as one might use a rubber stamp bearing a signature in a government office.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.”


Writing On The Wall? Massachusetts Museum To Sell Off More Of Its Collection

After a highly acrimonious, drawn-out court battle over the sale of several works from its permanent collection, a Massachusetts museum is headed back to the salerooms to raise more funds.

As you may know from these pages or elsewhere, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is in the process of reinventing itself into some sort of touchy-feely, gee-whizz, Chuck E. Cheese location. Any time you read that a museum is developing “cutting-edge technology and new interpretive techniques”, you should question the long-term thinking behind such an effort. (I have two words for you: Epcot Center.)

In order to bring about its own destruction, the Berkshire needs more funds. Having already sold several works, including two Norman Rockwells donated to it by the artist, but having failed to reach its $55 million fundraising target, the Berkshire will now send an additional nine works to Sotheby’s. Seven of these will be sold privately, and two will be sold in an upcoming auction of Asian art.

The Berkshire faces more than just the uncertainty of the market when it comes to deaccessioning pieces from its permanent collection, although it has its defenders among local newspaper columnists who know nothing about the art world. It has become something of a pariah among other American cultural institutions as a result of its actions so far, regardless of the legality of its being able to sell the works in its collection. For example, the museum has already been sanctioned by the powerful Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) as a result of the first dispersal, and part of that sanction involves the AAMD warning its members not to loan anything to the Berkshire or collaborate with it on any exhibitions. No word yet on whether greater sanctions will be imposed by the AAMD as a result of this forthcoming sale.

It’s possible that some of the works will end up in public collections, but of course there’s really no way to guarantee that when you’re arranging a sale via a third party. Current figures suggest that, even without the Calder, which Sotheby’s has not put an estimate on, the sale of these pieces should put the museum over the top in terms of its goals. However, if numbers come in at the lower end of pre-sale estimates, the Berkshire is prepared to sell off a third group of objects from its collection to make up tany remaining shortfall.


Among the pieces slotted to go in this round are works by several major American artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. “Giant Redwood Trees of California’ (c. 1874) by Albert Bierstadt is a misty, enveloping painting, lacking the artist’s best element – i.e., his depiction of mountain peaks – but expertly drawing the eye through the landscape to the waterfall at the base of the giant trees. My prediction is that this will probably go to a California-based collector or institution.


Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s “Two Ladies in a Drawing Room/The White Dress” (1921) is, from a certain standpoint, exactly the sort of thing that collectors want when they are out to acquire a work by this artist, who was always highly regarded by other artists and architects such as James Whistler and Stanford White, but is not quite the household name that he deserves to be. Dewing’s enigmatic, quiet pictures of ethereal ladies in Edwardian dresses, who almost seem to float through the spaces which he depicts, are highly distinctive. The estimate of $400-600k is probably right, since from the point of view of art history this is a bit late for Dewing, who was at the height of his powers in the decade or two before World War I, but stopped exhibiting not long after this work was completed.


Finally, Benjamin West’s “Daniel Interpreting to Belshazzar the Handwriting on the Wall” (1775) carries an estimate of $200-300k, which I suspect is somewhat low as West’s religious pictures have been attracting a lot of attention in recent years on both sides of the Atlantic. The painting dramatically depicts the scene usually referred to as “The Feast of Belshazzar” from the Bible, in which the Prophet Daniel is called before Crown Prince Belshazzar of Babylon to interpret some mysterious writing that has appeared on the wall just as the prince and his courtiers are enjoying a feast using the sacred vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. Daniel prophesies that Belshazzar is doomed, which makes this a rather a fitting image, I suppose, for the Berkshire’s efforts when taken in their entirety.