Art News Roundup: Restoration Edition

I’m both humbled and honored to formally announce that I’ll be moderating the closing Q&A and Panel Discussion at this year’s Catholic Art Guild Conference, titled “Formed In Beauty”, which is coming up at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on Sunday, November 4th. If you’re thinking about attending don’t delay too long, as tickets are now on sale but only until October 29th. This is an opportunity for all of those who care about beauty in the arts to meet with others of like mind, and thereby hopefully encourage the restoration of the beautiful not only in our churches, but by extension in our civic and domestic environments as well. If you missed Monday morning’s edition of the Son Rise Morning Show, you can catch co-host Anna Mitchell’s conversation with Catholic Art Guild President Kathleen Carr regarding this year’s Conference at about 1:51 if you follow this link.

And now, on to some other artsy stories.

A “Favourite” Film

Speaking of restoration, THE Restoration, as it’s known in the English-speaking world, which put the Stuarts back on the throne of England, ended with the reign of the rather odd and ungainly Queen Anne (1665-1714). Although it’s not out in the U.S. until Thanksgiving weekend, I currently have a film about Queen Anne on my radar, and want to put it on yours. “The Favourite” (teaser trailer here) stars Olivia Colman (probably best known to American audiences from the series “Broadchurch”), Emma Stone (Best Actress Oscar for “La La Land”), and Rachel Weisz (Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Constant Gardner”), so this is obviously no slouch production. I think Weisz, in particular, is worth seeing in just about everything she’s done – and yes, I include the “Mummy” films and “Constantine” in that assessment – but admittedly that’s just me.

The film explores the rise and fall of the “favourite”[British spelling], that particular friend of a monarch with whom the ruler shares their personal opinions and secrets, in a way which they cannot with their family or other courtiers. As you can imagine, the favourite occupies an enormously infleuntial position, and maintaining that position is a constant battle. In this case, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz) is in danger of being ousted from her position as royal BFF by her cousin, Lady Abigail Masham (Stone), when the latter arrives at court seeking a position.

Given the thematic material (there were rumors of an improper relationship between Queen Anne and Baroness Masham even at the time), this is probably going to be a film for discerning adults, rather than a history film that you can take the kiddos to. That being said, so far there is near-unanimity among serious film reviewers that all THREE actresses in the film should be nominated for Oscars this year, a feat which doesn’t happen very often. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival this summer, and Colman, who plays Queen Anne in the film, won Best Actress, so I expect quite a few more awards will be forthcoming. “The Favourite” opens in select U.S. cities on November 23rd.

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Compassionate Carving

The other night I caught this documentary from NHK World, the English-language broadcaster in Japan, and wanted to share it with you since, while not about great works of art, it is very much about the restorative power of humble art created with great heart. Following the horrific loss of life in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, in which over 15,000 people were killed (and thousands are still reported as “missing”, even at this late date), a Buddhist priest in the northern Japanese city of Higashi-Matsushima was trying to find a way to restore inner peace for local survivors of the disaster. Many had lost some or all of their family, their homes, businesses, and everything they owned. He began to carve rustic statues of the Buddha and Buddhistic gods, and every year gives them away in an annual service at the local Buddhist temple.

The half-hour film, “Sculptures with Soul”, from NHK’s “Hometown Stories” series, is a touching and at times heartbreaking chronicle of human decency and resilience in the face of unimaginable suffering. It’s also quite a surprise coming from a culture which traditionally prides itself on its formality and reserve. Even if you know nothing about Japan or Buddhism, I want to encourage you to watch it while you can. The video is only available on the NHK website until October 6th; after that it may be elsewhere, but you’ll have to hunt about for it.

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Purchasing Pugin

Sometimes, the art press comes a bit too late to the party.

As you may know, restoration and renovation of the Houses of Parliament in London is underway, and the effort will take several years to complete, given not only the vastness of the complex, but also the highly ornate Victorian decorative elements of the building. So it was exciting to learn from The Art Newspaper that one could purchase original 19th century encaustic Minton floor tiles designed by the great Augustus Pugin (1812-1852) which once covered the floors of the Palace of Westminster, as the building is properly known. Thousands of the tiles need to be replaced, given the wear and tear of nearly two centuries, and are being substituted with exact modern reproductions, as you can see here. Unfortunately, a visit to the Houses of Parliament online gift shop reveals that the tiles are all sold out. Perhaps an eagle-eyed reader will alert us, should any more of them go on sale at a later date.

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Visual Vertigo: New Art Installation To Explore Classic Hitchcock

Last evening I was supposed to join a group of friends in seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” (1959) on the big screen for the first time. I’ve seen the film many times on the small screen, most recently a few months ago, but any time you can see a classic movie the way it was meant to be seen, you should absolutely take advantage of the opportunity. It completely changes your perspective on the art and the acting involved in the creation of something that is of lasting value and cultural importance as many of the great movies created before everything in society went to pot – literally – in the ‘60’s.

Unfortunately, not anticipating that I would need to pre-book tickets, two of us were not able to get in to see the screening, which was sold out. That’s an encouraging bit of news, I suppose, especially on a Wednesday night. Hopefully it’s a sign to more theatres that people *want* to see films from the studio era on the big screen.

As it happens, the first “old” movie that I ever saw on the big screen was Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), following its restoration some years ago when it was redistributed to theatres. It was a mind-blowing experience since, although it’s not one of my favorites, the importance of the use of color in the film became far more apparent after seeing it as it was intended to be seen, where the poison apple greens and blood reds that mark certain scenes reflect off of and almost envelop the audience at different points during the screening. There are also elements to “Vertigo” which have become cultural touchstones: think of the “Simpsons” episode “Principal Charming”, for example, and the incongruous Spanish mission bell tower attached to Springfield Elementary School:

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If you know the film, you know that the Legion of Honor in San Francisco is a critical location, and a painting of a woman named Carlotta Valdes that Hitchcock had placed there, are important elements of the film. The portrait is something of a McGuffin, since once we uncover the mystery of what it is, it sort of falls out of the picture. But Hitchcock’s fetish-like attention to Kim Novak’s coiffure, suit, and a bouquet of flowers that she carries in imitation of that which appears in the painting, are things which come to have repercussions for both Leigh and Jimmy Stewart.

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So it’s interesting to note that American Contemporary Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson will be exploring some aspects of the film in a mixed media installation including film, in her new multi-site installation “VertiGhost”, which opens in San Francisco on December 16th. Some of the works in this installation will be shown at the Legion of Honor itself, and I particularly like Ms. Hershman Leeson’s use of the Droste effect in this piece:

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As ArtNews reported yesterday, the installation will feature references to the aforementioned McGuffin painting in the movie, along with considerations of some of the themes in both the film and in art. What do we mean when we say someone is being “haunted”? Why do we consider one thing “authentic”, and another thing, “fake”? What can psychiatry tell us about Hitchcock and the characters in this film?

I don’t plan to be in San Francisco any time soon, but if any of my readers happen to see the installation, I’d be curious to know what you think of it.

The Pleasure Of Being “Indiscreet”

The discovery of the remains of the Palace of Greenwich – where Henry VIII. Mary I, and Elizabeth I were all born – has caused great excitement in the archaeology world over the last couple of days. I should say it’s caused a great buzz, since most news reports are focused on the discovery of an area in which it is believed that the Royal bees were kept for making honey. Originally called the Palace of Placentia, it was the primary London-area residence of the Tudors, beginning with Henry VII in the 15th century, who significantly expanded the Plantagenet palace which stood on the site. The Tudor residence was torn down by the Stuart monarch Charles II in the late 17th century, as he intended to build himself a vast new palace on the site – which, as it turned out, was never completed.

If you’ve been to London, you know that today the site is mostly occupied by a group of singular buildings: the Queen’s House, a small royal residence by the English classical architect Inigo Jones, and the grand Old Royal Naval College, a joint effort by three of England’s most important Baroque architects: Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hakwsmoor, and Sir John Vanbrugh. The most famous feature of the latter is its Painted Hall, which features a vast ceiling and wall paintings by Sir James Thornhill. Thornhill’s work celebrates the anti-Catholic effort to overthrow the Stuart Dynasty, spearheaded by the Dutch Protestant William of Orange and his English wife Mary – a repulsive, whinnying horse of a woman, who betrayed her father in order to get herself a nicer throne. As propaganda pieces ago, it really is over the top:

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Coincidentally, over the weekend I happened to catch one of my favorite films, “Indiscreet” (1958), starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, which has an interesting connection to this hall at Greenwich.

Someone once described “Indiscreet” as a “soufflé of a movie”, which is an entirely accurate description. It doesn’t have a particularly high rating on most movie rating sites, probably because it’s a piece of entertainment that is meant exclusively for grownups – and perhaps somewhat sophisticated grownups at that. If you appreciate subjects such as art, ballet, currency policy, fashion, international politics, and theatre, brought together in the form of an unsung operetta – complete with plot devices such as disguises, jealousy, mistaken identity, romantic escapades, and the tinge of social scandal, all topped off by a memorable musical score – this is the film for you.

There are two critically important scenes in the film which were shot on location in the Painted Hall. These days location shots like this would not cause us to bat an eyelid, since they have become commonplace, but at the time they enormously increased the costs of production. This is particularly the case in “Indiscreet” given that, in both scenes, the Painted Hall played host to events that required hundreds of very well-dressed extras.

The first scene at Greenwich is a sequence in the early part of the film in which Bergman, invited at the last minute to a white tie dinner lecture where Grant is to be the guest speaker, begins to become infatuated with him. As you can see here, although he is supposed to be talking about post-war currency integration, which with hindsight we realize is a distillation of some of the main talking points in favor of the creation of what is now the Euro, he is perhaps more interested in his dinner partner than in the gold standard.

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Similarly, Bergman doesn’t know a thing about international finance, and yet you would think she was listening to one of the best speeches she has ever heard.

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The second scene shot in the Painted Hall comes close to the climax of the film, when the two return to Greenwich for a formal dinner dance. It gives you the very rare cinematic sight of two of Hollywood’s most famous stars dancing together for quite a good length of time – something which Bergman herself very rarely did on film. While the two dance somewhat conventionally for part of the scene, Grant is given the opportunity to show off his slapstick skills – he trained as an acrobat before appearing in Vaudeville, something which many people forget – to great effect. Unfortunately what he doesn’t realize at this point in the film is that Bergman has discovered an important secret that he’s been hiding from her, which explains the annoyed expression on her face.

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Whether you’ve seen the Painted Hall at Greenwich or not, seeing “Indiscreet” is well-worth the effort. It captures a time in Western history in which we aspired to be something more than what we are – and something more, in fact, than what we have now become. I think you’ll find it a wonderful slice of light, enjoyable escapism for a Saturday night.