Art News Roundup: Birthday Bonanza Edition

For those of you who didn’t read it earlier this week, my article on the latest art restoration disaster in Spain – and some questions about institutional oversight of cultural heritage within the Spanish Episcopate – has been republished on The Federalist this morning. As always, my grateful thanks to Joy Pullman and her team for wanting to share my scribblings with others. If you enjoy what you read, or want to take issue with what I’ve written, comments over on The Federalist site are as gratefully appreciated as they are over here.

On a happier note – that is, as far as the Spanish art world is concerned – next year marks the 200th birthday of the Prado Museum in Madrid, universally considered to be one of the greatest art collections in the world. Earlier this week, the museum announced a veritable bonanza of special exhibitions that will begin this fall and continue throughout next year, to mark the institution’s bicentennial. As expected, the major exhibitions – which include shows on Fra Angelico and the Florentine Renaissance, one hundred of Goya’s drawings, and a show comparing the works of Velázquez, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, among other exhibitions – will be taking place at the Prado itself. However, in a highly unusual move, the Prado has also organized two traveling exhibitions that will be sent out to other parts of Spain.

Of these, the largest single show is going to Barcelona later this year; I’m planning to see (and review) “Velázquez and the Golden Age” at the Caixa Forum in late December. Meanwhile, the “On Tour Through Spain” show will send at least one work (and in some cases more than that) from the Prado’s permanent collection to every autonomous community in Spain. Sites include, but are not limited to, the Dalí Museum in Figueres, the Museum of Fine Arts in Badajoz, the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca, and the Museum of La Rioja in Logroño. Even the Spanish overseas territories of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa will get in on the occasion. If you love great art, and why would you be subscribing to this blog if you didn’t, make your forthcoming travel plans accordingly.

And now on to some other art news headlines for the week.

Renoir Restitution

A continuing problem in the art world, as well as for the international legal system, is the thorny issue of works of art which changed hands in the period before, during, and after World War II. Just this week, three major stories in this vein have made headlines. First, the grandchildren of a woman whose portrait was painted by Matisse lost their latest appeal to recover the painting from the National Gallery in London. The work had been entrusted by the woman who was the subject of the portrait to an individual who turned thief shortly after the end of the war, as Berlin was being occupied and divided. Second, it turns out that four French 18th century drawings in the collection of the sister of Nazi art-hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt, whom I have written about previously as you may recall, were stolen from a family in Paris, only one of whom survived the Holocaust. Those works have now been returned to the owners’ heirs. Finally, a Renoir which the Nazis stole from a bank vault in Paris in 1941, where the owner had stored his most valuable paintings during the German invasion, has been returned to the granddaughter of the original owner; four other Renoirs and a Delacroix from the same collection are still missing.


Flipping Fantastic

The National Gallery of Denmark has just opened a rather interesting exhibition, “Flip Sides”, in which works of art in the museum have been turned around and hung so as to display their backs. We often don’t realize that there is a great deal of information to be learned from the back of a picture. Sometimes there is a second work of art on the back, such as in the case of Leonardo’s portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci here in the National Gallery in Washington. In other cases, the back of a picture tells us about a piece’s history and provenance, shows how the artist went about creating their work, or demonstrates that the artist was reusing their own or someone else’s materials.

In the example from the exhibition shown below, we’re actually being fooled by the artist, for Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c.1630-1675) was a famous trompe-l’œil painter. In this case, the rather Surrealist “trick of the eye” that he painted is the very realistic-looking back of a painting, shown on the front of a painting. “Flip Sides” runs through March 10, 2019.


Discovering Dixon

Not being a specialist in decorative arts, I must confess that I’d never heard of American Arts and Crafts designer Eda Lord Dixon (1876-1926) until I read this very interesting and well-researched article about her life and work. It turns out I’m not alone in my ignorance because, as the article itself points out, when a magnificent silver and enamel hand mirror by Dixon was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2014, she was “virtually unknown.” In her day, Dixon was primarily known for her enameled jewelry, but she also produced luxury household objects such as jeweled boxes (like the one below, also owned by The Met), finger bowls, cigarette holders, and even a solid silver enameled chalice engraved with a verse from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. With more attention (quite rightly) beginning to be drawn to Dixon’s work, this is a good time for collectors to bone up on her biography, style, and materials, before heading to your local consignment shop or flea market in search of lost treasure.

L.2017.25.1a, b

The Haunted Life of Cornelius Gurlitt

Ever since the story broke, I’ve been fascinated by the tale of Cornelius Gurlitt.  You may recall that in 2012, the reclusive, elderly German pensioner was discovered to be in the possession of hundreds of works of art by well-known artists, many of which were previously unknown or had been missing for decades.  Authorities believed a significant percentage of the collection was either Nazi loot, or forcibly sold by Jewish collectors to Gurlitt’s father, one of the Third Reich’s preferred art dealers.

Gurlitt died yesterday at his home in Munich, a small, rented apartment which had once been crammed with an estimated 1,400 artworks by artists such as Chagall, Picasso, Canaletto, and many others.  In February of this year it was revealed that Gurlitt’s country house, near the Austrian city of Salzburg, was filled with over 60 works by artists such as Monet, Manet, and Renoir.  Because of questions regarding the provenance of the art in his possession, Gurlitt eventually agreed to turn over the collection to the German authorities for investigation.  To the end Gurlitt remained convinced that all or most of the pieces would be determined to be rightfully his, and that his name would be cleared.

If you didn’t catch the superb article about Gurlitt in Der Spiegel a few months ago, interviewing him and detailing what is known about his life, it is very much worth your time.  Not only is it a superb piece of journalism and extremely well-written (kudos to the English translator, as well), but it imparts a profound sense of a man both living outside of time, yet simultaneously imprisoned by it.  One gets the sense that Gurlitt lived constantly in the presence of shadows, which were very real to him, so that in many ways these paintings were the physical embodiment of two diametrically opposed elements of his life.

On one hand, the art reminded him of all the family who had predeceased him, leaving him alone.  His personal failures, and his inability to achieve much of anything with his life, hung about him as he got older, as he looked at the works of art he had inherited by default as the last man standing.  In this Gurlitt at the end is vaguely reminiscent of the conclusion of di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard”, with the rotting “relics” and questionable art held on to by the now-decadent Salina sisters.

On the other hand, in some respects Gurlitt’s hoard acted not as an albatross, but as a cocoon.  As the world around him changed, these familiar objects and the associations which he held with them, served to insulate him from reality.  Whether looking through portfolios of Old Master drawings in his little apartment, or visiting a host of glowing Impressionist paintings at his house in the country, he could imagine that his life was still promising, and that his family was just in the next room or down the hall.  They were all merely shadows by this point, yes, but in a way one supposes that they were comforting shadows, and he felt that they kept him safe from a world which he had been unable to come to terms with.

Gurlitt’s tale is an unfortunate one, for many reasons.  If, as is suspected, it turns out that some or all of the art he possessed was not rightfully his, but rather was illegally expropriated from those who were later murdered by the state, then it will be yet another sad, horrid chapter in the history of socialism.  It may take quite a long time for justice to be properly meted out, and at this late date one doubts that it will completely resolve the matter.  There will almost certainly have to be some kind of government inquiry regarding the possibility of settlement, and that may take years.

Imagine what might have happened if, upon inheriting these works of art, Gurlitt had done the right thing and stepped forward.  We would be reading a very different obituary today.  By that one voluntary act of giving up this collection, and working to ensure that these pieces were returned to their rightful owners, Gurlitt could have achieved what eluded him his entire life: a sense of purpose.  Instead of trying to hold on to these phantasms, if he had exposed them they would have lost their power over him.  He might have spent his life trying to do good for others, earning the respect and appreciation he craved.

Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that if he had not been caught, Gurlitt would never have made his collection known to the authorities.  The works might have been discovered later, upon his demise and the clearing of the contents of his homes, but then there would have been even fewer answers available to the authorities.  Whether Gurlitt was guilty of any prosecutable offenses, or what he would have done at the conclusion of the government investigations, we will never know.

When he returned to Munich earlier this week, after a recent heart operation in Salzburg, Gurlitt came home to an empty apartment.  It had been stripped of the art that had surrounded him his entire life.  One wonders whether the thought that he would probably never see the collection again came upon him, and perhaps that realization is what caused Gurlitt’s heart to give up at last.

Whatever the cause, the man who lived so much of his life in the shadows, has now become one.