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

 

 

 

 

 

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Thought Pourri: What’s In Edition

Rather pressed for time today, so let’s just head to some of the headlines that I’ve picked out for your perusal:

Picasso in Provence

The really BIG news in the art world this week is that the south of France is about to score what will no doubt become a major destination for art aficionados and tourists alike. Catherine Hutin-Blay, the stepdaughter of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and his 2nd wife, Jacqueline Roque (1927-1986), has purchased a former Dominican convent in the town of Aix-en-Provence, which will become the home of a new museum dedicated to the artist and his muse, whom he painted over 400 times during their marriage. Mme. Hutin-Blay owns the largest number of Picassos still in private hands; the new museum will house well over 1,000 paintings, as well as sculptures, drawings, and ceramics by her famous stepfather, who is buried alongside her mother at the nearby Château of Vauvenargues. To give you some sense of the size of this institution, the new museum will have more Picasso paintings in its collection than the four extant Picasso Museums in Barcelona, Paris, Antibes, and Málaga.

As to the building itself, the Dominicans first arrived in Aix in 1272. The first convent was completed in the 14th century; this burned down and was rebuilt, but a century later it had to be demolished. The convent and the attached church of La Madeleine – dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, patroness of the Dominican Order, were completed in the 17th century. The convent served the Order until the 18th century, when it was taken over by the provincial government. After that it became a courthouse, a barracks, a training college for teachers, a conservatory of music, and finally an all-girls high school, until it closed in June 2015.

Aix

Saint-Gaudens in New Hampshire

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was one of the greatest sculptors in American art history; while his rather grand name may not be familiar to you, a number of his works probably are. Among his most famous sculptures are the “Standing Lincoln” located in Lincoln Park, Chicago, the “Shaw Memorial” on Boston Common, and possibly my favorite, the “Adams Memorial” in Rock Creek Park Cemetery here in DC (a copy of which, shown below, is located in the American Art Museum.) The Currier Museum of Art, in Manchester, New Hampshire, will be hosting a major exhibition of Saint-Gaudens’ work – not an easy task, given the size of much of it – including his iconic “Diana”, a gigantic gilded statue of the goddess of the hunt which once stood atop the 2nd (and far superior) version of Madison Square Garden in New York, designed by Saint-Gaudens’ frequent collaborator, architect Stanford White. “The Sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens” opens at the Currier on Saturday, February 10th, and runs through May 20th.

Adams

Voynich in Hebrew (?)

One of the most enigmatic objects to survive from the Middle Ages is the “Voynich Manuscript”, an illuminated manuscript currently in the collection of Yale University, which has fascinated collectors, cryptologists, and scientists for centuries. So far, no one has been able to read it or make any sense of it, although theories (some of them rather crackpot) abound. It is first documented in the middle of the 16th century, even though the book itself has been carbon-dated to show that it was probably created sometime in the early 1400’s. Now, scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, using analytic software tools, have announced that they may have cracked this seemingly indecipherable document at last, concluding that it is written in a somewhat badly spelled and slightly ungrammatical form of Hebrew. More work needs to be done, but perhaps this ancient book will finally be able to share its secrets.

Voynich

 

Thought-Pourri: What’s In Edition

I’m still looking for ideas on what to call this weekly feature, partly because in the future, I’m considering turning it into a newsletter, and partly because I’m tired of the title. Titling it “Arts Roundup” or something like that seems rather dull. So please, if you have any ideas on what to call it – other than “Thought-Pourri”, that is – do share your ideas with me by using this form.

Tate Britain In Disarray

In the world of stupid ideas, this is one whose time – one thought – had come and gone, along with (the unlamented) Sir Nicholas Serota, but which now appears to be returning for another round. Five years ago, Tate Britain undid the art historical damage of Serota and his ilk by putting its collection back into roughly chronological order; now, that work is to be undone by its new director who, no surprise, hails from a Contemporary Art background. To re-hang a permanent collection in a way which makes sense to a temporary administrator and his flunkeys, but not to the vast majority of visitors, is not only short-sighted, but presumptuous and grossly egotistical. As Bendor Grosvenor has observed, “this seems to me reflective of an institution which doesn’t really know what it’s about. Shackled to the mother ship of Tate Modern, Tate Britain seems to see itself not as a museum, but a giant exhibition space, one that’s almost embarrassed by what it has to show. Consequently, the exhibition space – and what goes in it – must be changed every five years or so. A museum which was comfortable in itself, and happy to celebrate its collection, wouldn’t do this.”

Tate

Georgia In Hawaii

The great American Modern artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was a painter of sensuous floral paintings, as well as stark New York or Southwestern-inspired landscapes, but what few may be aware of is that she spent time working in Hawaii on commission from N.W. Ayer & Son, the advertising agency for Dole Foods Corporation – yes, the canned pineapple people. From early February to early April of 1939, O’Keefe sketched and painted the flora and landscapes of numerous sites in the Hawaiian Islands, including the Big Island, Oahu, and Maui; she ended up creating 20 paintings reflecting her time there, some of which were used by Dole in their ad campaigns, as shown below. Later this Spring, the library of the New York Botanical Garden will play host to an exhibition of many of these Hawaiian works, in an appropriately tropical setting, bringing them together for the first time in nearly 80 years in what will no doubt be a very interesting and popular show. “Georgia O’Keefe: Visions of Hawaii” opens on May 19th and runs through October 28th.

Georgia

Vegas In Neon

Few American cities are more closely associated with the use of neon lights than Las Vegas, Nevada, and so it will not surprise you to learn that Sin City has a major museum dedicated to this product of industrial design, creative advertising, and electrical engineering. The Neon Museum opened in 2012, and has become a popular tourist destination for those who want to see the remnants of famous casinos long since lost to the wrecking ball, such as the famous Sahara Hotel. The institution not only preserves and restores old neon signs at its facility, but is responsible for the care and maintenance of a number of historic neon signs in its collection which have been installed as public sculpture in and around Fremont Street. The museum has proven so popular that it has just announced a major expansion of its facilities, as well as the addition of new exhibitions and events, to draw in more visitors interested in these fun, supremely kitschy items of American design.

Vegas