Art News Roundup: Merry Valentine’s Day Edition

Today is the first day of Winter, and it doesn’t look as though we’re going to have a white Christmas here in the Nation’s Capital, given that it’s currently about 63 degrees. Yet be that as it may, as we approach the 4th Sunday of Advent, I was rather appalled to drop into my local CVS on Tuesday evening and find that Christmas-related items were already being removed. The emptied shelves were in the process of being filled with items for Valentine’s Day.

You can see the photographic evidence of this here, and quite frankly I find this utterly appalling, for many reasons. What message does this send to children, for example? That they cannot even be satisfied with the gifts they will receive on Christmas in a few days’ time, because they have to be salivating over chocolates that they will be eating two months from now?

A follower on Instagram commented that at her local Giant Supermarket, she could not find any peppermint candy canes, and asked the clerk if they would be getting any more before Christmas. “No,” he replied, “Christmas is over.” Well, Christmas is most emphatically NOT over, because it hasn’t even begun yet. So whatever it is that the powers that be at places like CVS, Giant, and the like are celebrating at the moment, it certainly isn’t Christmas.

I happen to be someone who *does* celebrate Christmas, as it happens, since I may be a great sinner, but I’m one who believes in the veracity of the Christian faith. I will definitely, therefore, be celebrating all twelve days of Christmas when they arrive. Therefore, I’m going to use my prerogative as the lord of this virtual manor to share some interesting art stories involving the restoration of works that represent three types of sacred art: sculpture, painting, and musical instruments.

Pisano’s Pistoia Pulpit
One of the most important sculptural works of art of the Early Renaissance is about to go under tarps and scaffolding for the next two years. Giovanni Pisano (lived about 1245-1315) was an architect and sculptor, son of the more famous Nicola Pisano (lived about 1210-1278), who executed major commissions for churches throughout Italy and possibly elsewhere [there is currently an art history theory that the magnificent alabaster tomb of St. Eulalia, in the Cathedral of Barcelona, is by a member of their studio.] Giovanni created the pulpit for the church of Sant’Andrea (St. Andrew) in Pistoia, a city about 20 miles from Florence; the piece is stylistically related to other pulpits by the Pisanos, including those in the Cathedrals of Pisa and Siena, but shows how the Gothic was coming to an end and what we would consider “Modern” sculpture was born. Thanks to a grant from the American charitable foundation Friends of Florence, and the cooperation of government officials along with expertise from the University of Florence, structural analysis of the entire sculpture is currently underway, and as cleaning begins visitors to the church will be able to see live camera images of the restorers at work on monitors.

Pisano

Bononi’s Beautiful Biohazard
Staying in Italy for the moment, Italian scientists have discovered that some works of art may be changing over time for the same reason why milk turns into cheese, or why your kid comes home from school with strep throat: microscopic organisms. The expert team analyzed a painting of the “Coronation of the Virgin” by Carlo Bononi (1569-1632) which hangs in a church in the Italian city of Ferrara, and found that the entire piece, front and back, was covered with microscopic colonies of fungi and other microbial organisms, including Staphylococcus(!), Penicillium, and others. Interestingly enough, different pigments and materials used in creating the painting attracted different populations, since one type of fungus might prefer to live in or snack on certain environments more than others. This research may well have long-term implications for how restorers go about treating and conserving works of art in the future.

micro

Bodet’s Blessed Bells
An interesting and heart-warming story from Art Daily, on the efforts of one company to restore the sounds that once marked the daily rhythm of life throughout France. Bodet is one of the only companies in Europe that specializes in the repair of church bells, and since 1991 has brought back well over one thousand church bells into working order. While it’s a pity that hardly anyone in France goes to church anymore, at least the call to Mass, the marking of the hours of the Angelus, and the commemoration of baptisms, weddings, and funerals will provide a regular opportunity for these revived bell towers to do their job and remind listeners that they are in a country shaped by two millennia of Christianity.

Bodet

Art News Roundup: Hopper on the Block

I don’t normally tell people what art they ought to buy or not buy, since the “what” of art collecting is really up to personal taste. That being said, it’s just been announced that the greatest painting by the American Modern-Realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) left in private hands is coming up for sale at Christie’s. So if you happen to have $70 million sitting around, you should absolutely attempt to buy it.

Hopp

“Chop Suey” (1929) is classic, iconic Hopper, full of strong colors, unusual angles, and an air of mystery. You sense that we are in a moment somewhere between inaction and action, where with a single word, everything might change…or not. In fact, you’ve probably seen this image so many times, illustrating the cover of books from the Jazz Age or in retrospectives of Hopper’s work, that you probably didn’t even realize that this piece is privately owned.

This is a deceptively simple painting, until you really start to look at it. There are obvious questions such as, what are the two women talking about, or what are the young couple behind them talking about? But there are also less obvious points of enquiry, which always make trying to interpret a Hopper painting a great deal of fun.

Why, for example, does it appear as if there two light sources in the window above the man’s head, crossing over each other? Why is the fire escape ladder hanging down in front of the window at our right? Why do the couple have the little green-shaded lamp on their table, but the two women have theirs on the windowsill?

The $70 million estimate for this picture strikes me as a bit conservative: I wouldn’t be surprised, particularly in this market and given the Chinese-American thematic material, to see a Chinese collector pay $100 million for this work. The Chinese are primarily interested in brand names, when it comes to consumption, and Hopper is definitely in the upper pantheon of American artists when it comes to Modern Art.

Hopper’s current auction record is $40.5 million, for an interesting but unpopulated urban landscape painting, “East Wind over Weehawken” (1934). It depicts the slightly grim, rocky neighborhood that one drives through on the way to the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan from New Jersey. While Hopper’s landscapes and seascapes are nothing to sneeze it, they are more numerous than his figural paintings, which makes me think that “Chop Suey” will do better than its estimate.

And on to some other art news we go…

Beautiful Bath Tiles

The English city of Bath has welcomed visitors to its thermal springs since ancient times, when the Romans started visiting to take the waters. What visitors may not realize however, is that the current Bath Abbey, built in the late 15th-early 16th centuries, stands atop a far larger, demolished Cathedral that was built by the Normans beginning in the 11th century. Now, workers at the Abbey have uncovered some of the original Plantagenet floor tiles from that earlier building, and they are glorious things indeed.

azulejos

Blunders in Brussels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), one of the most important and highly influential Flemish artists of the 16th century, certainly deserves a stand-alone museum, and the good people of Brussels were about to give him one. It was to be in a Renaissance house located on the same street where Bruegel lived and worked after his marriage in the parish church nearby. Unfortunately, the Bruegel House museum, which was to open next fall, is now on indefinite hold. This is not due to a lack of funds, but rather due to an overabundance of what the Belgians are particularly good at: inventing convoluted bureaucracies with draconian and utterly stupid rules.

Under current guidelines, government agencies must request approval from the federal government before spending more than $65,000, and in this case the federal government turned down the request. Work on the project has been halted indefinitely, even though the agencies involved have more than enough in reserve to pay for the project. A spokesman for the Minister of Budget, Sophie Wilmès, told the press that funding the museum was “not a desirable solution because it contradicted the budgetary objectives for federal agencies.” One is put in mind of Jim Hacker’s “British sausage” speech.

Greedo

Da Vinci Doodles

Thanks to the latest bit of gee-whiz technology, you can now get closer to looking over the shoulder of a great Old Master painter than ever before. The Victoria and Albert Museum is digitizing its collection of notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci, and has put the first two volumes online for you to virtually thumb through. The remaining two volumes will be released online in 2019 as part of the commemorations surrounding the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. Not too much in the way of high art in this first release, but plenty of engineering sketches and, naturally, the master’s famous right-to-left handwriting.

Davleo

 

Digital Ancient Art: Technology Provides Glimpse Of What Was, What Might Have Been

The use of digital images is something that, if you think of it at all in an art context, is normally associated with Contemporary Art. We’ve all seen examples in the news of things being projected onto buildings, or weird images in exhibitions that exist only on monitors. Yet in an art history context, the use of digital images can provide us with an experience that is truly enlightening, by showing us things that no longer are, but once were.

Among the most dazzling examples of this is the projection of overlays showing what the original, painted decoration of a Gothic cathedral façade would have looked like. Far from the monochromatic, grey-and-beige faces which they now present to the world, many of these monumental structures were decorated in vivid colors both inside and out. In this, the Medieval Europeans were merely following the example of ancient cultures of the Mediterranean basin, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who lavishly (and indeed garishly) colored the statuary on both the inside and outside of their buildings.

Back in the late ‘90’s, restorers working at the 13th century Cathedral of Notre Dame d’Amiens, were able to determine what the original, painted color scheme of the West Front, the main façade of the church, would have looked like from remaining painted surface decoration. Amiens is the tallest complete Gothic church in France [N.B. Yes, Beauvais is technically taller, but it is half-collapsed], and its entrance is known for its host of sculptures, with multiple Biblical scenes and dozens of statues of saints. Using digital technology, the Cathedral projects overlays onto the West Front in the evenings during the summer and at Christmastide, which give visitors an idea of what the bright, colorful façade must have looked like in its heyday. You can see a spectacular video of the projection here.

Amiens

Another use of digital image technology that was recently announced for the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, about half an hour south of Paris. The luxurious castle, built for Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance Nicholas Fouquet, is one of the grandest private residences in France. The main interior element of the château was to be the ceiling of the grand salon, a domed room that is about 60 feet wide and 60 feet high, which was to be covered in an elaborate mythological tableau by the greatest French artist of the period, Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). The ceiling was never completed however, since in 1661 Fouquet fell from grace and was imprisoned for his mishandling of the country’s finances.

Today the visitor to the estate who enters the grand salon will see a ceiling painted with a simple blue sky and a soaring eagle. However, we know from Le Brun’s drawings and contemporary documents what he originally planned to paint on the surface of the ceiling. As reported in The Art Newspaper, current owners Alexandre, Ascanio, and Jean-Charles de Vogüé are now engaged in a fundraising campaign to create a digital projection for the ceiling which would represent, as close as possible, Le Brun’s original intended decoration for the space. Since a full set of engravings for the final plan exist, all the digital artists will need to do, essentially, is color them in; figuring out how to actually project them will be another matter.

LeBrun

Finally, there is the example of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, famously the site of the greatest art theft of the 20th century. The paintings are still missing, and the search to find them remains one of the great, fascinating quests in the area of art crime. Rumors ranging from their destruction to their being held as collateral by the mafia abound, and periodically various theories crop up as to what exactly happened to them, and, if they still exist, where they are today. The frames from which the paintings were cut still hang, empty, throughout the museum as a testament to their loss.

Now, a Boston-based technology firm has created “Hack the Heist”, which offers visitors to the Gardner the chance to see part of the museum as it was before the robbery. Using digital imaging, app users inside the museum can “see” some of the missing pictures placed back in the spaces where they once hung. Although not officially sanctioned by the museum, the app continues to keep alive public interest in solving this mystery, with the hope that, one day, the paintings will return.

Gardner