Thought-Pourri: Art And Architecture Stories For Your Perusal

Event: The Future Of Architecture

The National Civic Art Society will be hosting a discussion at the ultra-posh Cosmos Club here in the Nation’s Capital on Tuesday, November 14th, titled “”Dramatic Cultural Change and the Future of Architecture.” The speakers, Duo Dickinson and Michael G. Imber, are not only both practicing architects, but journalists as well, each having substantial experience in writing and speaking about a variety of topics and trends in the field of architecture. They will be looking at the role which architecture ought to be playing in contemporary society, and the question of whether it should be embracing, rejecting, or otherwise adapting architecture of the past to the needs of the future. The event is free and open to the public, but you must register by following this link.

Dalí, Disappeared

Check out this absolutely fascinating story from Allison McNearny at The Daily Beast about the mystery surrounding a lost Salvador Dalí painting of Jesus. In February 1965, the great Catalan Surrealist was scheduled to visit prisoners on Rikers Island, the New York City incarceration facility well-known to viewers of the “Law & Order” television franchise. Too ill to attend, he instead sent a painting of the Crucified Christ, which he quickly executed that morning in his suite at the St. Regis Hotel. What happened next would be perfect fodder for an investigation by Jack McCoy, et al., including forgery, larceny, official corruption, and multiple trials. To this day, no one knows whether the painting still exists.

Magritte, Illuminated

Speaking of the Surrealists, an iconic work from that art movement is up for sale, if one of my readers wants to buy me an early Christmas present. “L’empire des Lumières” (1949) by René Magritte is one of a series of similar works which the Belgian painter created to tickle the mind’s fancy. The lower part of the picture depicts a street scene at night, illuminated only by street lights or unseen lamps burning within the buildings; completely incongruously, the sky depicted above is that of a bright, sunny day. Magritte painted several variations on this theme into the early ‘50s, and these are currently in display in various art museums around the world, including both the Guggenheim and MoMA.

This particular painting however, which is the very first in that series, was acquired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in 1950, and has never come under the hammer before. It’s being auctioned by Christie’s New York during its Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on Monday, November 13th. The sales estimate is $14-18 million, but this is such a famous and important work of Modern art, and carries such an elite pedigree from a provenance point of view, that I would expect it to fetch a far higher price.

A Fool And His Money?

And in fact, a deep-dive into trying to understand the prices for Modern and Contemporary Art, versus those paid for Old Master and Romantic Art, are the thing in this interesting article over on Blouin ArtInfo. Michael Podger examines in detail a phenomenon which I’ve often written about in these pages: the comparatively paltry sums obtained at auction for Old Master paintings, as compared to works by Modern and Contemporary Artists. Podger takes the proverbial bull by the horns, digging deeply into the wealth of sales data on works by major artists such as Raphael and Titian.

He concludes that while many of the Old Masters are comparatively immune from the vicissitudes of trendiness, current monetary values may reflect not only a lack of appreciation for the skill employed in the creation of these older works, but also a lack of knowledge and sophistication on the part of current collectors when it comes to the subject matter of these pictures. “What this suggests is that the market sets no real store by the craft evident in Old Master paintings or by the care with which they were painted,” he notes, before comparing the work of Agnolo Bronzino and Peter Paul Rubens to that of the (grossly-overrated) Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Or perhaps many Old Master paintings are simply too subtle for contemporary tastes and require study and knowledge before they reveal themselves fully. Because of this they fail to offer the instant visual hit that many collectors crave.” It’s a long analysis, and as a blog post it can’t possibly touch on all of the causes for the present state of the art market, but it’s well-worth reading.

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The Strange Tale Of The “OCD Art Thief”

The gentleman thief is a favorite character in storytelling. He steals paintings, art objects, and jewels while always looking dapper, often has a way with the ladies, and usually holds a greater interest in the thrill of the chase than in the value of the possessions which he obtains. You can find variations on this character in movie roles such as that of Cary Grant in “To Catch A Thief”, Steve MacQueen/Pierce Brosnan in both versions of “The Thomas Crown Affair”, or Vincent Cassel in “Ocean’s Twelve”.

But while we know that all of these characters are fictional, sometimes life really does imitate art.

Police in the south of France (natch) have recently apprehended a real-life version of this mythological character, in the form of a former French civil servant in his mid-40’s, who over the past twenty years has accumulated over 500 objects taken from private homes, hotels, museums, and art galleries. The cache includes paintings, drawings, and prints by artists such as Braque, Chagall, Degas, Derain, Picasso, and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as a huge number of 19th and 20thcentury bronzes. There were also antique books and toys, ceramics, and recordings.

When caught, the alleged thief was apparently quite cheerful about it, and explained that he was motivated by kleptomania. The objects themselves were not put out on display inside his flat, but simply piled up. Moreover, unlike in most cases of art theft, where details of the crime are obliterated by the perpetrators so as to make recovery impossible or at least more difficult, this individual apparently labelled everything – including the date and location where the object was taken, and in some cases the approximate value of the object as well. No wonder then, that ArtNet has tagged him as the “OCD Art Thief”.

In looking through the hoard recovered by the police – which you can view here, split into four lengthy PDF’s – some themes emerge. The alleged thief definitely had a love for bronze sculpture, perhaps because it was smaller and easier to slip into the pockets of an overcoat than, say, a painting. It also seems as though he had a particular affinity for the work of Léopold Lelée (1872-1947), given the number of works by this French illustrator which were found to be in his possession. To be honest, until I read this story I had never heard of Lelée, an artist who seems to have transitioned from Art Nouveau to Modern Art rather successfully. (As an aside, learning about Lelée in researching this post proves a point that I’ve often made to my readers, when it comes to studying art history: there’s always an interesting new-to-you artist out there to discover.)

Yet perhaps most interesting of all in the hoard is the fact that, for reasons best known to himself, the alleged thief accumulated a number of works of art that carry a theme of penitence. There are works representing penitent sinners in attitudes of prayer, as well as representations of saints and scenes from Christian art. These things tempt us into psychoanalyzing why someone would steal such things. Was it a way for him to address feelings of guilt, by being constantly reminded of having broken the 5th Commandment? Or was the relative unpopularity of such imagery in the present day, thanks to our increasingly secular society, responsible for making these objects easier to steal, since fewer people would be paying attention to them? We may never know.

So far police have been able to return around 40 of the objects to their rightful owners. The hope is that, by publishing photographs of the recovered pieces, more of these things will be able to find their way back home. As to the alleged thief, his day in court is coming up sometime in the next few months, but given his unusual twist on the character of the gentleman thief, I suspect that there are already forces at work in the film industry, trying to come up with a script based on his exploits.

Florence To Tourists: Become A Criminal, Will Train

In the beauty contest of stupid ideas, this one has to be a contender for Miss Universe.

The Opera Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, which oversees a number of major tourist attractions in the Tuscan capital, has launched an app called Autography, which allows visitors to leave virtual graffiti on some of the city’s most iconic monuments. The idea came about as a way to combat real-life graffiti, which the non-profit has to spend considerable time and money scrubbing clean. Users will be able to scribble their names, messages, and so on onto virtual images of Florence’s Cathedral, Baptistery, and other buildings using a program called Autography, which promises to store their scrawls in a permanent database that will be accessible to other visitors. The graffiti, it is noted, will be screened – i.e. curated – for anything in the way of “insults, unauthorized material or judged inappropriate.”

The reader will need to bear with me, because this is a truly radical concept, but surely such graffiti is, by its very nature, insulting, unauthorized, and inappropriate, regardless of its content.

Here in the Nation’s Capital, we don’t seem to suffer from the same degree of loutishness in our public spaces, at least not yet. The notion that one would go down to the Jefferson Memorial during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and find all of the pillars tagged, is practically unimaginable. When such acts do occur, they are appropriately dealt with.

Yet if you have visited Europe in recent years, it seems as though the battle between weak authorities and brazen criminals was conceded to the latter long ago. Practically every church door is covered with graffiti, and shop owners now go to the trouble of paying miscreants to come and spray-paint their roll-down doors, so as to try to reduce the level of cleanup they will have to do later. It reminds me of how the later, more decadent Roman emperors would bribe barbarian tribes, in order to keep them from sacking Rome.

Part of the ill-informed philosophy behind efforts such as Autography, of course, stems from the artistic establishment’s lionization of guerilla graffiti artists such as Bansky, whose appeal I have never understood. Creating art by spray-painting a photoshopped image from a template onto public or private property is hardly the work of genius. The tolerance or in some cases active encouragement of this practice has led to a kind of mutually assured destruction by government and the arts, in which common decency, historic preservation, and the rule of law are forced to take a back seat to expressions of personal selfishness.

Will the Opera’s plan work? Logic would dictate that those who are most of a mind to place graffiti on a cathedral bell tower are highly unlikely to say to themselves and their cohort, “Hey, let’s go check out that new app where we can pretend to draw our names on a wall.” Moreover, the risk here is that those who would never normally engage in such behavior will now try it, and find the experience so intoxicating that they will subsequently want to try it out in real life. Virtual reality, after all, is no substitute for experience.

Most of us do not view defacing public or private property as a laudable activity. It is a behavior which demonstrates a fundamental lack of charity toward others, which is particularly ironic in a house of Christian worship. For while ultimately the fault for this galactically stupid idea lies with the Opera, the Archdiocese of Florence should be of ashamed of itself for even consenting to be a part of such an ill-conceived plan, in which the walls of its sacred buildings are to become the proving ground for future antisocial nonsense.

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Graffiti inside the lantern of the Duomo, Florence