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.

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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: Recovered Gems Edition

Before getting to some art news of interest this week, I realize that over the weekend just past I forgot to link to my latest post in The Federalist, which you may have already seen, on pioneering World War I aviation artist Henri Farré (1871-1934). Due to the restrictions on space, it wasn’t possible to show more than a few of his paintings in the article, which I began researching on a recent trip down to the Tidewater Virginia area. More of his work can be seen on my Instagram feed, here and here, featuring some pics I shot at a current exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, which celebrates Farré’s art and marks the centenary of the end of World War I. It’s a small show, but definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in the area. If you can’t make it, pick up a copy of Farré’s superb first-hand recounting of his experiences as an aviator-artist, “Sky Fighters of France”, which you can find through online booksellers and auctioneers.

Pricey Pearl

Continuing this week’s market trend of low estimates and unexpected prices – I can possibly understand such a price for a Hopper, maybe, but who would pay over $90 million for a HOCKNEY? –  Sotheby’s Geneva just sold a diamond and natural pearl pendant once owned by Queen Marie Antoinette of France for $36 million; the pre-sale estimate on the piece, which has been owned by the royal house of Bourbon-Parma for centuries, was $2 million. The pendant was sold along with 99 other items of jewelry from the family collection, bringing a whopping $53.1 million in total. Rather bizarrely, this article in Art Daily states that the pendant was “owned by Marie Antoinette before she was beheaded…” I suspect it rather unlikely that it could have been owned by her *after* she was beheaded.

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Wee Warriors

Speaking of royal caches, you’re probably familiar with the famous terracotta warriors buried with the first Emperor of China, as examples of these tomb sculptures always prove a popular tourist attraction when they visit this country. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Prince Liu Hong, son of the Emperor Wu, who reigned in the 1st century BC, commissioned his own terracotta army for his grave, but at a more modest scale than his imperial ancestor. The hundreds of figures in the Prince’s tomb, which have now been fully excavated and documented following their original discovery about a decade ago, average between 9-12 inches tall, rather than life-sized. They’re accompanied by chariots, watchtowers, and other elements, which can’t help but remind one of an action figure playset – albeit a far more breakable one – and are a rare treasure, indeed. Details on the discovery and excavation have been translated into English and are available in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

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Revived Retablo

The Art Newspaper provides an overview of the history and conservation of the Battel Hall retablo, a rare, circa 1410 jewel of a painted English altarpiece that survived the Protestants – sort of – albeit with the faces of Christ, Mary, and the saints scratched out. It later suffered numerous other indignities, such as being used as a desktop in a school, where it was further scarred and dirtied over the centuries; someone, possibly the students, even carved “witch signs” into it, as protection against evil spirits. Fellow fans of the Dominican Order take note, this object was probably painted for a Dominican foundation, possibly a convent, since it features both St. Dominic and another Dominican (St. Albert the Great is my best guess, given the book and miter, but I may be wrong) as well as St. Mary Magdalen and St. Catherine of Siena. After two years of conservation and restoration work, the scarred Medieval altarpiece has now been hung in the chapel of Leeds Castle. For more information on the jewels of Catholic art and architecture lost thanks to King Henry VIII’s incontinence, get a copy of Eamon Duffy’s classic “The Stripping of the Altars” from Yale University Press: saddening, sobering, but fascinating reading.

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Art News Roundup: Pompeiian Pooch Edition

Despite the fact that they were first excavated beginning way back in the 18th century, the Ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are continuing to yield fascinating finds for archaeologists, historians, and art lovers alike.

A find which could prove to be of enormous historic, if not artistic, significance has just been announced as part of the Great Pompeii Project, a major excavation, conservation, and restoration effort that began at the site in 2011. Archaeologists have found a wall with a bit of graffiti, written in charcoal, bearing the date October 17th. The writing is believed to be a note written by a workman who was in the middle of a home renovation project. If that’s correct, then the date of the destruction of Pompeii, which is traditionally placed on August 24, 79 AD, is wrong, and the history books will need to be rewritten.

Meanwhile, other excavators working at the site have uncovered an outdoor room which the press is now referring to as “The Enchanted Garden”, thanks to the magnificent frescoes contained within it. The room, or more properly the lararium, was where a wall shrine to the household spirits was kept. The family who lived in the house would make daily offerings here, in order to keep these bearers of good fortune about the place, and it was also a pleasant place to sit, protected from the elements but within reach of flowers and other plants.

While these spaces were common in Roman residential construction, this one is particularly interesting not only for its well-preserved beauty, but also for the presence of a dog-headed humanoid in one of the frescoes. It’s possible that he is the Egyptian god Anubis (or an individual wearing an Anubis mask). You may recall from your history books that Egypto-mania hit the Romans when Cleopatra came to live with Julius Caesar in 46 BC. No word yet on when this lararium will be open to visitors.

Dog

Watching the Watchmen

Regular readers will recall that last week I reported on how art conservation pron has become a thing in the museum world, attracting scores of visitors who want to see art experts at work on cleaning and restoring works of art. Well now, in what may be the most singular example of this trend, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has announced that Rembrandt’s greatest masterpiece, “The Night Watch” (1642), a detail of which appears below, will be undergoing a very public cleaning and conservation, beginning next summer. For those of you who won’t be in Holland at the time, not to worry: the museum intends to livestream the restoration on the interwebz.

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Reunited Ruffs

Speaking of art conservation and the Dutch, should you find yourself in Ohio between now and early January, you’ll definitely want to check out “Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion”, which just opened at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition brings together three paintings (a pre-restoration detail of one of the canvases appears below) by the great Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) of groups of figures which, subsequent to cleaning and restoration, art historians have only just realized were portions of a large-scale portrait painting of members of the Van Campen family. The original painting was likely chopped up at some point after Hals’ death as a result of damage, with the incongruous bits painted over by a later restorer to make the pieces more commercially marketable. After Toledo, the show will head to Brussels, and later to Paris.

Hals

Measuring De Morgan

If you love computer-generated geometric designs such as fractals, and happen to find yourself in the UK in the next couple of weeks, then you’ll be interested in catching an exhibition that will be closing soon at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London on the work of the great English decorative arts designer William De Morgan (1839-1917). De Morgan is one of the most important of all Arts and Crafts era artisans, thanks in part to his designs for the company founded by his friend and contemporary William Morris (1834-1896). While De Morgan is often thought of as being fascinated with the exotic in his chargers, vases, and tiles, such as the ones shown below, bringing in references to the Middle Ages, India, and Persia, this new exhibition takes a look at the mathematical studies which helped him to come up with and execute geometrically complex designs by hand, without the benefit of CAD. “Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs” closes on October 28th.

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