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

 

Thought-Pourri: Flamethrower Edition

Before sharing some (good) news stories from the art world this week, I need to beg the reader’s indulgence in allowing me to give vent to what I believe to be a very, very bad one. If you are a subscriber or a regular reader, you know that I usually try to keep things fairly positive and informative hereabouts. For the most part, that tends to be a more effective way of sharing what I have to say.

But sometimes, you need to light up the flamethrower.

More details of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s forthcoming “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition and associated Met Gala have been released. As I expected, the whole thing makes my skin crawl. Described as the largest exhibition ever mounted in the history of the Met, spread across 25 galleries, the show will feature 40 items from the sacristy of the Sistine Chapel, along with religious art, high fashion and couture garments, and other objects assembled from various collections.

On Monday, Met curator Andrew Bolton spoke at a press conference in Rome flanked by Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Vogue Magazine doyenne Anna Wintour, fashion designer Donatella Versace, and others. Bolton seemed to be aware of the fact that this forthcoming carnival sideshow has rankled many even before it opens on May 1st:

While the fashions that are featured in the exhibition might seem far-removed from the sanctity of the Catholic Church, they should not be dismissed lightly, for they embody the storytelling traditions of Catholicism. Taken together, the fashions and artworks in ‘Heavenly Bodies’ sing with enchanted, and enchanting, voices.

The “storytelling traditions of Catholicism”, as he puts it, are not merely “stories”. They are articles of faith for the 1.2 billion Catholics who currently live on this planet, and for those now-deceased billions who, over the course of the last 2,000 years, have believed, suffered, and died for it. They did so all the while spreading what was originally viewed as a tiny heretical Jewish sect to the four corners of the earth, in obedience to Christ’s Great Commission before His Ascension to “Go teach all nations.”

Catholics do not share tales about the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, or the humility and grace of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the persecution of martyrs, or the spiritual teachings of the doctors and mystics of the Church, in the same way that we might talk about what we did on vacation, or what happened on the most recent episode of “Homeland”, or how Cinderella had a magical fairy godmother who gave her a pair of glass slippers. We do not represent these things in paint, textile, or metal merely for the purposes of decoration, as if they were nothing more than representations of some old chestnut or fish story from a murky past with which we no longer have any connection. Moreover, even with the promised segregation of sacred objects from secular fashions in this show, the visitor will be confronted with a montage whose very title – particularly the term “Heavenly Bodies” – when spoken aloud suggests concepts which ought not to be considered in the same breath.

I have no doubt that some of the objects on loan from Rome are splendid, in themselves, and had this been an exhibition solely about liturgical or papal vestments, textiles, or the like, standing independently, I’m sure it would have been a fascinating display of centuries of history. But that’s not what this is: it’s an ill-advised attempt by Rome to try to seem hip and current, and will provide those who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular with plenty of ammunition to fire at the Church. I find the entire concept of this exhibition to be offensive, tacky, and grossly ill-informed – much like this Papacy – and shame on the Vatican for even considering being a part of this travesty.

I urge my fellow Catholic readers in particular not to go see this show, nor to have anything to do with it.

Here endeth the rant. Now, on to some better news.

Missing Degas: Found

In one of the strangest art recovery stories I’ve read in some time, news outlets have been reporting about the recovery of a stolen work by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), “Les Choristes” (1877), which was found by French Customs inspectors on a bus parked at a gas station outside of Paris. The work was one of a number of pieces left to the French nation by Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), a close friend of Degas, and had been stolen nine years ago while on loan from the Musée d’Orsay to an exhibition at a museum in Marseilles. The Orsay has now announced that the piece will be part of a Degas exhibition next year, which will eventually travel to the National Gallery here in DC.

Degas

Missing Monet: Found

A long-lost painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926) is now back home – in Japan. “Water Lilies: Reflection of Willows” (1916), a study for the artist’s set of water lily paintings now in the Musée de l’Orangerie, was purchased in the 1920’s by Japanese industrialist Kojiro Matsukata, who amassed one of the first great collections of Western art in his country. The painting was moved to France for safekeeping during World War II. No one seems to know for certain exactly how it ended up in the Louvre, but in 2016 it was discovered in a storage area of the museum, rolled up and heavily damaged; currently, the surface is being held together by tape, as you can see below. The piece is now undergoing restoration at Japan’s National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and will subsequently be placed on public display.

Monet

Missing Caravaggio: A Clue?

You may recall that back in November, I shared a story about the search for a stolen altarpiece by Caravaggio (1571-1610): his “Adoration of the Shepherds” (1609), a detail of which appears below, which was painted for the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo, Sicily. At the time, well-known art detective Charley Hill indicated that he believed he was on the trail of the missing painting, which was allegedly stolen to order by the Mafia. The latest development, according to a crime informant anyway, is that the painting was sold to a now-deceased Swiss art dealer, and cut into pieces so that it could be shipped to Switzerland undetected. Let’s hope that it still exists somewhere.

Shepherds

 

 

 

 

 

Thought-Pourri: Art News This Week

Before we take a look at some arts stories that caught my interest this week, I want to invite you to join me for a Baroque concert at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, tomorrow evening at 7:30 pm.

The program for “But They Are At Peace: Music For The Feast Of All Souls” contains pieces for choir, organ, and soloists by Johann Sebastian Bach and the early German Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz. Featuring the Musica Spira ensemble as well as musicians from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the concert begins at 7:30 pm and admission is free; there will be a free-will offering for donations to support the excellent music at St. Stephen’s. Details and directions may be found by following this link. I hope to see many of you there, and if you spot me in the audience please do come up and say hello!

Concert

And now, on to the news roundup:

A Sedona Surrealist Surprise

Much to the surprise of everyone, Bonhams auction house has announced that the star of its upcoming Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in November will be “Ohne titel (Sedona Landschaft)” [“Unititled [Sedona Landscape”], a painting of Sedona, Arizona by the great German Surrealist painter, Max Ernst (1891-1976), which had nearly been forgotten. Ernst painted the intensely-colored work during a visit to Arizona in 1957, and gifted it to a local surgeon; it has remained with the doctor’s family since then, and was last exhibited in 1961. The estimate of $500-$700k is, to my mind, rather low, but then again the work is only about 2 feet long and 18 inches high – perfect for over the sideboard. As I will be traveling to Sedona myself for a few days later next month, I’ll have to do a side-by-side comparison of Ernst’s painting alongside a far less important snap from my phone over on my Instagram account.

Ernst

Caravaggio and the Code of Silence

The myth that art theft is usually carried out by a sort of gentleman cat burglar, like Thomas Crown, Danny Ocean, or John Robie, is blown out of the water in this very interesting piece over on Vice. Art theft detective extraordinaire Charley Hill, who has helped in the recovery of a number of major art heists over the years, recounts the twists and turns involved in seeking one of the items he is still searching for, nearly 50 years after it went missing. “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1609) by Caravaggio was stolen on Mafia orders from the Oratorian Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo back in 1969; it’s a very unusual work, completely different from Caravaggio’s better-known (and more conventional) version of the same subject, also painted in 1609. To this day, no one knows whether the missing altarpiece still exists, or who has possession of it. Hill believes he has an idea of where it is, and he’s determined to get it back.

Cara

Rocky Road for Rockwells

Regular readers will recall my take last month on the upcoming sale of two paintings by popular 20th century American artist Normal Rockwell, alongside a number of other works of art, which the artist had donated to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The plot has thickened somewhat of late. The Rockwell family has now joined a group suing the Berkshire to halt the sale, and requested a temporary restraining order while that issue is being decided; the State AG’s office also seems to be investigating. Meanwhile, the museum’s director has temporarily stepped down for medical reasons, in an unusual bit of either chance or timing. Stay tuned, as this fight is getting more and more interesting.

Rockwell

The Banality of Basquiat and Brown

Two of the most famous American names in Modern Art and Popular Fiction are the late Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and writer Dan Brown. Both created work that can be safely categorized as pseudo-intellectual garbage that commands utterly unreasonable prices, whether in terms of auction sales or box office receipts. For your pleasure and mine, then, I’d like you to enjoy a pair of absolutely scathing, wonderfully written take-downs. The first comes from the great British art critic Waldemar Januszczak who, in characterizing a major new exhibition of Basquiat’s work at The Barbican in London, is left shaking his head: “This really is what the art world has become: a shallow, uneducated, disingenuous, over-moneyed, rapacious chewer-up of proper artistic values.” Meanwhile over at The Week, Matthew Walther’s piece on Dan Brown’s latest novel, “Origin”, is an absolute howl, noting that no gifted writer of thrillers “would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art and follow it up with such varied set pieces as a conversation in a boat, a conversation on a plane, and a conversation in a driverless Tesla SUV before settling in to two more long conversations in an apartment and an office building.”