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

 

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Why Are You Here? Christie’s Auction And Da Vinci’s Christ

Pretty much everyone in the art world will be holding their breath tomorrow night, as Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” hits the auction block in New York.

There’s been a great deal of debate about how a Catholic devotional painting by *THE* Old Master painter of all Old Master painters is going to do at an auction which is primarily focused on Modern and Contemporary Art. Instead of putting the picture in a sale with paintings by other, pre-Modern artists, as would normally be the case, Christie’s took the unusual step of including the painting in an evening event with works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, among others. Putting a panel by the greatest painter of the Italian Renaissance alongside the other works in this sale is certainly risky from a business standpoint, which is one reason why Christie’s decided to take the painting on tour prior to tomorrow night’s sale.

Christies

As part of its marketing campaign, Christie’s created a video which is by turns both simple and complex, manipulative and disarming. If you’ve not seen it yet, go take a look at it before continuing with this post. It’s fairly short, and definitely worth your time.

There are different ways that we could look at this ad.

One take would be that this is both a highly staged and highly manipulative advert. Some of the reactions seem forced, and it’s particularly telling that we never see the viewers from the back, standing in front of the picture. Even more interestingly, even though the video is a bit over 4 minutes long, we’re never actually shown the painting – not even a tiny detail of it. The viewer keeps waiting for that payoff, but it never comes.

Cynically, we could dismiss this as being further proof that the art world isn’t really interested in the quality or the subject matter of the paintings it sells. Rather, Christie’s is simply adding to the feeding frenzy of society’s current obsession with self-reference, in order to increase the final sales price for this picture and thereby its own commission percentage. But as is often the case with work produced by those who have no great love for Christianity, people of faith can look at this ad in a different way.

We can’t know what all of the people that we see in this ad were thinking about at the time they were filmed. No doubt most of them were simply curious to see a Da Vinci which they had never seen before, in a kind of been-there/done-that fashion. Others in the film are artists, art collectors (Leonardo Di Caprio, for one), and historians, who can look at the picture in a somewhat different way, noticing elements of iconography or technique.

Yet beyond simply recording the reactions of curiosity seekers and the art aficionados, I wonder whether we don’t see something else here, as well. For my bet is, that at least a couple of these people are experiencing one of those moments which comes, not from mere temporal appreciation of others’ outstanding achievements, but in seeing something that transcends the material. Such moments in life, when we’re suspended outside of our linear path, are rare occurrences, and when they do occur they both enthrall and disturb us at a very deep level.

I make this observation because, putting aside the more obvious reaction of one elderly lady who weeps before it, at least a few of the people seem unable to look at the painting straight on. Instead, they turn themselves partly away from it, tilt their heads, and look at it almost out of the corners of their eyes. This seems a very curious reaction, because the picture itself is so stark and unavoidably face on: we see only a single, still figure gazing out at us from a dark background.

In fact, the image’s very stillness, and the reaction of at least some of those whom we see in this video to that stillness, puts me in mind of the Prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13:

Then the Lord said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord – but the Lord was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire – but the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah?

On a more pop culture level, it’s also a bit like the scene in the film version of “The Lord of the Rings”, when the Fellowship of the Ring arrives at Lothlorien after the loss of Gandalf, and they meet with the Lady Galadriel. There’s a moment in which Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gazes piercingly and unflinchingly into the eyes of Boromir (Sean Bean), to such an extent that he becomes deeply perturbed and cannot look her in the face. She sees what is going on in his heart, and he cannot escape from that exposure of his own selfishness.

Perhaps without intending to do so, Christie’s has created an ad that could be run as a better marketing campaign for the Church than most of those which we see today. Who or what are all of these very different people seeking? And how would each of us answer that same question? To quote Christ Himself, “And you, who do you say that I am?”

If Da Vinci’s painting, half a millennia after it was created, can still provoke such questions in people, even in its somewhat dilapidated state, then this is quite a powerful and invaluable work of art indeed, whatever the final hammer price tomorrow night.

On The Beauty Of Useless Things

Last evening I caught up with an old friend, who has been busy having a bit of a clear-out. Old books long since read and never reopened, knick-knacks which seem to come from nowhere, and even a diploma frame emblazoned with the school logo were being tossed out. The experience was described as freeing, and of course that’s to be taken both literally and figuratively: as living space becomes less cluttered, the mind feels less cluttered also.

It’s a feeling I know well, having to go through the de-hoarding process regularly. Despite public perceptions of what living in Georgetown must be like, one thing that all village residents know well is that homes built a century (or quite a bit more) ago, while very quaint, often present significant storage problems for their residents. Closet space is at such a premium that, at least twice a year, I end up hauling great sacks full of worn, but still wearable clothes out of the house to give to the poor.

Yet the guilt we may sometimes feel for having useless “stuff” must be tempered by an acknowledgement that utility is not a virtue, in and of itself. Employing a spirit of utility in the imitation of Christ’s poverty is virtuous, whether you are a Capuchin friar who has renounced all earthly possessions, or a successful entrepreneur giving away your substantial resources in order to aid those in need. The application of utility as the sine qua non of human existence however, can just as easily lead to evil (see, inter alia, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, Margaret Sanger.)

In Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan”, textbook college leftist Tom Townsend criticizes the Christmas parties he’s been attending, which he finds wasteful when there are people less fortunate than himself in the world. Nick Smith points out that there’s something rather arrogant about not enjoying yourself at a party that you’ve been invited to, because you’d rather stay at home and think about others whom *you* consider to be less fortunate. It’s a scene that, in a way reminds me of one of those moments in the Bible when consumption and utilitarianism come head to head, in an unexpected way.

In each of the four Gospels, we read the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ head with costly perfume, washed His feet with her tears, and wiped them clean with her hair. In their respective versions of the event, Saints Matthew, Mark, and John also recall the words of Judas during this scene. He criticizes the “waste” of the perfume, which could have been sold to help the poor. Judas is trying to make himself appear more virtuous, but he’s also embracing a utilitarian attitude toward what is taking place in front of him.

Christ not only rebukes Simon the Pharisee, in whose home this scene is taking place, since he failed to even offer the basic material comforts which were due to a guest, but He also rebukes Judas’ utilitarianism. As to the former, a host who fails to provide for the needs of his guest is not acting with the generosity with which God acts toward us. As to the latter, Jesus notes that we will always be able to help the poor, but that this woman was doing something very special to honor Him: an act which He predicted would be remembered throughout the world. And of course, He was right.

During His time on earth, Christ may not have owned anything, but He certainly enjoyed things that were lacking in utility. He liked to sing with His friends, sail on the Sea of Galilee, and even barbecue. Perhaps you are being called to give up all that you own, in imitation of Christ, and that is a special calling indeed. For most of us however, I think we’re called to remember that moderation is what we’re after, not a wholesale rejection of Creation – for Creation was, after all, a gift that was made for and given to us.

Christ In The House Of Simon The Pharisee by Jean Beraud (1891)