Art News Roundup: Morisot and More Edition

My latest for The Federalist, a review of the major exhibition on French Impressionist Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) that just opened at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, is now available for your perusal. Sincere thanks to my very patient editor, Joy Pullmann, and everyone at The Federalist, for allowing me to share some of my thoughts on the show itself, and more importantly on Morisot’s woefully underrated art. I think you’ll find that it’s a fairly comprehensive exhibition and, even if you don’t particularly like Impressionist art, it’s worth visiting to see Morisot’s significant gifts for composition, and her very interesting development as an artist who, by the end of her career, was breaking away from the conventionally saccharine aspects of the Impressionist movement. In my view, she became a better and better painter the further away she got from the influence of contemporaries such as Manet, Pissarro, and Renoir.


Unfortunately, the show’s organizers don’t seem to be willing to allow Morisot to be judged on her own merits, but rather insist from the get-go – the title of the show is “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” – that her work must be examined through the lens of feminist and gender theory. The exhibition catalogue even opens with reference to a work by the Guerrilla Girls, darlings of the Contemporary Art world who are truly horrible, untalented, and overrated charlatans. Mentioning them in the same breath as Morisot is like comparing Miley Cyrus to Maria Callas.

My best advice is that you go enjoy Morisot’s art on your own terms. It doesn’t need to be wrapped in someone else’s insecurity blanket in order to be appreciated. The show is at the Barnes until mid-January; after that it travels to the Dallas Museum of Art, and will have its last stop at the Orsay in Paris.

And since my Federalist piece is a bit of a lengthy one, just a couple of brief headlines from elsewhere in the art world this week.

A Prado in Barcelona?

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is now running for Mayor of Barcelona – yes, you read that correctly – has issued a rather interesting proposal: Spain’s legendary Prado Museum in Madrid should open satellite Prados in other cities, as institutions such as the Louvre and Tate have done, beginning with Barcelona. While an intriguing idea, it must be said that this notion would seem to betray a critical lack of understanding on the part of M. Valls, with respect to both current and long-standing political and cultural tensions between the two cities. In any case, Madrid would be far more likely to authorize a first Prado satellite in Seville, rather than Barcelona, just as it authorized the first high-speed rail link between Madrid and Seville, making Barcelona wait. (Old hatreds never really die in Spain.)

As to this rather unusual political candidacy issue, M. Valls, shown below against a backdrop of Barcelona’s famous sidewalk tiles, was born in Barcelona to a Catalan father and a Swiss mother. However he was raised in Paris, and is a French citizen, so make of that what you will. He is currently running to replace the current Mayor of Barcelona, the dreadful Ada Colau, a failed actress who has proven to be an international embarrassment to the city since her election. Barcelonans will go to the polls iat the end of May, unfortunately right about the time when I’ll be arriving in town for my summer holidays. Perhaps I’ll head to the seaside for a couple of days, first.


A Phoenix in Budapest

Speaking of restoration, after having been closed to the public since it was heavily damaged during World War II, the magnificent main hall of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest has finally been restored. It reopened to the public at Noon yesterday, following several years of work. The Romanesque Revival interior is covered in scenes from Hungarian history, but suffered so badly during the war that it was turned into a storage room, since experts at the time believed that it would be impossible to bring it back to its former glory. Fortunately for us, that theory has now been disproved, as you can see in this 2-minute video of the restoration work. Magnificent job.


Still Higher: A Brief Sagrada Familia Update

Being a project that I’ve been fascinated with my entire life, I wanted to update you on a few developments at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The work of the late Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926) the Basilica of the Holy Family (“Sagrada Familia”) has been under construction since the late 19th century, and is undoubtedly the most unique church in the world. Millions of people visit each year to marvel at it, and there is always something new and exciting going on with regard to its architectural progress.

The latest addition to the building is a massive, 18-ton stone cross, nearly 25 feet tall and about 14 feet wide. The construction team described its installation on Monday as “a real challenge”, not only because of its size, but because of its placement. There was no room for error in swinging it about into position, which could have damaged the statuary and architectural elements beneath it.

You can see a short video of it being raised here, and its final placement here.

The cross is located on the pinnacle of the porch attached to the façade of the church that represents scenes from Christ’s Passion. There will be three sculptures of angels placed around the cross, each engaged in a different action: the first will be venerating the cross, the second will be embracing the cross, and the third will be kneeling and holding aloft a chalice. You can see a model for the group below:


While the giant cross may seem like just another decorative element on an already highly-decorated building, it ties in to the overall sculptural program. Just below the cross is a platform, reached by two staircases that will eventually be accessible to visitors, depicting the scene in the Bible in which the women come to the tomb on Easter morning and find it empty. An angel appears to them to inform them that Jesus has risen from the dead, and points to both the empty tomb and to Heaven as the women react with astonishment:


Most of the sculpture on the Passion Façade is by the late Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs (1927-2014), whose work straddles the lines between Expressionism, Cubism, and Brutalism. To be honest, for the most part his work is not to my taste, although I do confess to liking some of it. Subirachs died before all of the sculptural groups on the Passion Façade could be finished, and two other Catalan sculptors have been working to complete the programme on this side of the building.

The cross and the angels surrounding it are the work of contemporary Catalan sculptor Lau Feliu (born 1957) whose style is, while not exactly the same as that of Subirachs, certainly related to it and perhaps a bit more pleasing to the eye. In addition to the cross and angels, Feliu has also completed two animal sculptures which stand on either end of the porch: the Lion of Judah, and the sacrificial ram caught in a thicket which was sacrificed by Abraham in place of Isaac:


The empty tomb scene on the other hand, is the work of another contemporary Catalan sculptor, Francesc Fajula (born 1945). Like Feliu, Fajula’s style is not the same as that of Subirachs, but shares some of the same visual influences, particularly from Expressionism. The faces of the Marys, in particular, had to be carved with great thought, since they would need to be seen from the sidewalk down below. Fajula also sculpted the crucifix which is suspended over the main altar in the Basilica, based on Gaudí’s designs for the piece.


As to overall progress, by the end of this year it is expected that the six main towers of the Basilica will all be as tall as the currently existing towers on the Nativity and Passion Facades, which are about 295 feet tall. Of the six, the tower located over the apse will be dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and will eventually be 459 feet tall, crowned with a giant illuminated star representing the Star of Bethlehem. Over the crossing at the center of the church are a central spire surrounded by four supporting spires. The supporting spires will be dedicated to the Four Evangelists, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and each of these will be 443 feet tall. The central spire rising from the midst of these will be dedicated to Jesus and stand 566 feet tall, making the Sagrada Familia the tallest church in the world when it is completed.

Construction on the Sagrada Familia is still on pace to be completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death, and I must confess that every time I go back to Barcelona I’m astonished by how quickly things have been moving. While the final decoration of the building will be completed long after 2026, to have it structurally complete in my own lifetime is something that, as a child, I never thought that I would see happen. It’s already a structure which makes you gasp when you stand in front of it because of its sheer size and height, and I can’t imagine what the final effect will be when it’s nearly two times as tall as it already is right now.

To keep up with the progress on the Basilica, be sure to follow the Sagrada Familia’s Twitter and Instagram accounts. Images are posted every day, with accompanying text in English, Catalan, and Spanish, and there’s always some new detail to be featured, or a new achievement in the construction process to note. Unlike many other buildings, the construction of the Sagrada Familia is being funded entirely by private donations and tickets – no government or diocesan money is going toward its completion – and it’s been that way from the beginning. So if you’re interested in helping to complete construction on this astonishing project, you can visit the official website and learn how you can participate.



Thought-Pourri: Back To Work Edition

Having had a terrific vacation in Spain, full of art, architecture, and yes, IG photos of what I ate, it’s time to get back to writing. There will likely be a few posts to come out of this trip, but as I’m still slightly jetlagged, it seemed best to start with an art news roundup. As you get older it becomes more difficult to bounce bag from that time zone shift, or so I find.

Anyway, on to some news.

Wrecked Repin

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) is possibly my favorite Russian artist; he specialized in historical pictures, and without question his most famous work depicts the aftermath of a moment of great violence, in which the infamous Tsar Ivan the Terrible is depicted with a powerful expression of utter horror and remorse after having killed his son Ivan in a fit of rage. In a way it reminds me of Goya’s famous “Saturn Devouring His Son” (c.1820-1823), now in The Prado, but I don’t know whether Repin was familiar with it. In a different moment of rage, a drunken visitor to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow recently attacked the 1885 picture with a metal pole, causing serious damage to both the canvas and the frame, but mercifully not harming the figures themselves. The assailant’s motives remain somewhat murky, although he told police that he had been drinking in the museum bar prior to his vandalism. After restoration, the painting will be put back on display in the museum again – but from now on, under bulletproof glass.


Catalan Comings (And Goings)

In Catalonia, the good news is that a stolen copy of Columbus’ letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel announcing the discovery of America has been located by U.S. officials and is returning home. One of 16 copies printed by the explorer, the letter had been in the collection of the National Library of Catalonia for about a century but was only missed in 2012 when, as part of their investigation, U.S. investigators visited the Barcelona-based library and determined that the copy in its collection was a facsimile of the original, substituted by thieves at some unknown point in time. The bad news, at least as far as Catalan museums are concerned, is that the main painting from the high altar at the Royal Monastery of Sijena, which the museum wanted for its collection, has been sold by a Madrid gallery to the Meadows Museum in Dallas, which has (arguably) the most important collection of Spanish works of art in the U.S. The painting, which depicts the Adoration of the Magi, was created sometime between 1510 and 1521 by an artist whose identity is currently a matter for scholarly debate, but it is believed that the youngest of the three kings in the altarpiece may be a youthful portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who became King of Spain in 1516.


Discovered Digit

The Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 AD-337 AD) commissioned a number of colossal statues of himself, remnants of which are found in a number of museums in Rome and elsewhere. One of the lesser-known examples was a giant bronze, fragments of which are located in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Following some interesting detective work, The Louvre has recently discovered that a colossal Roman bronze digit, originally believed to be a toe, was in fact one of the bronze’s index fingers. When a copy of the piece was taken to Rome for comparison, experts were surprised and pleased to discover that it was an exact fit to the hand currently in the Capitoline’s collection.