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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Dominic and Clare: Two Great Saints, Two Great Activities

With the feast of St. Dominic tomorrow, and that of St. Clare of Assisi coming up this Saturday, I wanted to share two bits of news related to both, which hopefully the reader will find interesting.

The first involves a Solemn Mass which will be held at St. Dominic’s Church here in DC, at 7pm tomorrow evening. After Mass there will be the opportunity to venerate a relic of St. Dominic, followed by a reception which, I am assured by the parish, will be non-solemn. St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominicans, who, along with St. Francis of Assisi (1180-1226), helped to usher in a significant period of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic growth in the Church during the Middle Ages, and his spiritual descendants carry on that work today.

If you’ve never been to St. Dominic’s, you’ve probably seen its striking bell tower from the 395 expressway going to or from Capitol Hill. It points skyward amidst the bland, boxy, brutalist concrete structures that were built in the middle of the previous century, when demolition of historic structures in the name of “progress” was all the rage in urban centers. St. Dominic’s is one of the few architectural survivors from before that supposedly enlightened movement destroyed the neighborhood around it, which similarly ruined places like Penn Station in New York and Boston’s City Hall. And what a magnificent survival it is, as you can see here:

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Although I’m unaware of any evidence that he ever met her, another contemporary of St. Dominic was St. Francis’ dear friend St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), whose life the church commemorates on Saturday, August 11th. St. Clare founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, more commonly known as the Poor Clares, a few years after the foundation of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Whereas the former concentrated largely on preaching and education, and the latter on caring for the poor and outcast, the Poor Clares are a contemplative order, living in monastic community and spending their days in lives of prayer and meditation.

In 1326, the first Poor Clares monastery was founded in Pedralbes, then a small village in the foothills of the mountains that surround Barcelona, by King Jaume II for his 4th and final wife, Queen Elisenda de Montcada. She retired there after his death, and over the years the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Pedralbes grew in size and beauty to eventually become designated as a National Monument of Spain. It’s a place that has been important in the life of my mother’s side of the family for many generations.

One of the great treasures of the monastery is the Chapel of St. Michael, a cell located in the beautiful, triple-story Gothic cloister (the only one in Europe, BTW.) It is completely covered with frescoes dating from 1346, executed by an artist named Ferrer Bassa (1285-1348). Little is known of his life or training, but the frescoes are highly significant to art history as evidence of early Italian Renaissance art making its way to the Iberian Peninsula. Bassa’s work shows that he was familiar with the work of contemporary Italian artists such as Giotto, Duccio, Simone Martini, and others, and may have studied in Siena. This art would have been seen as cutting-edge design at the time of its execution in Barcelona, since there was nothing else like it outside of Tuscany.

Now, after a multi-year, complex conservation and restoration effort, the chapel has been brought back to as near as possible what it looked like when it was first completed in the mid-14th century. The decorative program features a number of saints – including St. Francis and St. Clare, naturally – as well as scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Because the chapel was originally a nun’s cell, it’s not possible to get a good sweeping vista of the decoration, but this gives you some idea of the impression that you get when you step inside from the cloister:

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The significance of the spread of this kind of art outside Tuscany cannot be overestimated. Whereas in earlier Catalan art, faces were often stoic and expressionless, Bassa introduced his Catalan viewers to a new and unprecedented kind of realism, drawn from the observation of nature and real life, in which we can more easily empathize with the figures depicted in the scenes. Here, for example, we see expressions of anxiety, sorrow, and suffering in the faces of the women who have been witnessing the torture and death of Jesus:

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Whether you find yourself in Barcelona this weekend for the feast of St. Clare, or indeed at any other time, if you are interested in art history, magnificent architecture, and/or Christian spirituality, make sure to make a pilgrimage to Pedralbes. There are still a few Poor Clare nuns left, although sadly like many religious orders in Spain, they have been dying off for quite awhile now, and personally I’m worried that the place, which is mostly run by the city as a museum at this point, is going to get turned into some god-awful hotel and conference center or something, so best to go see it now while you can. It’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, being in a mostly residential neighborhood, but I think you’ll find the beauty and indeed the peacefulness of the place well-worth the trip.

Thought-Pourri: Genius Edition

I’ve been very pleased over the last 24 hours to receive several comments from readers of my most recent piece for The Federalist, published yesterday, about the current Frick exhibition of Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, along the lines of, “I’ve never heard of Zurbarán before!” While he is one of the most famous old Masters in Spain and Latin America, and had a huge influence on a number of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern artists, he is unfortunately not as well-known in the States as he ought to be. So I’m glad to have had the chance, albeit in a very small way, to introduce this great genius to a new audience. If you are in New York at all between now and April 22nd, you really want to see this show.

And this being Holy Thursday, it’s perfect to lead off today’s art news roundup with an exciting new art history documentary about one of the most famous pieces of sacred art in the world, created by one of the greatest geniuses in human history.

A Second “Last Supper”?

“The Last Supper”, arguably the best-known religious work ever painted by Leonardo da Vinci – and certainly the most iconic image of this subject in all of art history – is, as you probably know, something of a wreck. It was painted in 1499 for the Dominicans on the refectory wall of their convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, and from the beginning the work has captured the imagination of all who have seen it. In fact, I suspect that when you read the words, “The Last Supper”, most likely Leonardo’s painting immediately popped into your head. Unfortunately, thanks to the highly experimental techniques used by Leonardo, as well as the ravages of time, today the fresco is only a shadow of its former self.

Now, as Art News reports at length, researchers have stumbled across a major discovery which allows us (as nearly as possible) to see “The Last Supper” as Leonardo originally intended.

It turns out that after Louis XII of France conquered the Duchy of Milan in 1507, at which time Leonardo came into his service, he ordered a full-scale copy of the fresco on canvas, which was made using the original cartoons (detailed transfer drawings) that the artist had used in outlining his design on the wall of the convent dining room. Miraculously, the experts working on this book and film project were eventually able to track down the king’s copy, which has been hanging unnoticed in an abbey in Belgium for the last 5 centuries. Not only does the copy match up perfectly with the original, showing us details which have now vanished due to the deterioration of the fresco, but experts believe that while most of the painting was executed by one of Leonardo’s chief assistants, the figures of Christ and St. John were probably painted by Leonardo himself.

“The Search for the Last Supper” will begin airing on local PBS stations this weekend; as the saying goes, check your local listings.

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“Mona Lisa” Staying Put

Speaking of Leonardo, you may recall my telling you about a hare-brained scheme by France’s culture minister, Françoise Nyssen, to send the “Mona Lisa” out on tour to combat what she calls “cultural segregation” (whatever that means.) The Louvre has now politely responded and said, in so many words, “You can forget that idea.” During a recent meeting with Mme. Nyssen, Louvre Director Jean-Luc Martinez explained that the painting cannot be sent on tour, because “doing so could cause irreversible damage.” The painting is in extremely delicate condition, and in particular suffers from a crack which opens up every time it is removed from its current spot in the museum. Unfortunately, politicians have rarely batted an eyelid when it comes to destroying great masterpieces of painting, sculpture, or architecture for the sake of populist politics, whether of the left or the right. So perhaps the best bit in The Art Newspaper’s reporting on this story which certainly made *me* smile, is the following:

The culture ministry at first claimed that the Louvre “was not opposed to the idea”. It now says that the idea “is still under consideration” and that “a technical examination has started” (museum staff have no knowledge of this). Suggesting that other masterpieces could tour France, Nyssen is clearly looking for a way out of a publicity stunt gone wrong.

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Celebrating the Genius of Tolkien

A major exhibition celebrating the life and work of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” author JRR Tolkien will be opening on June 1st at Oxford; from its description, this will no doubt become one of the major UK museum shows taking place outside of London this summer. As the Bodelian explains:

Visitors will also be introduced to the vast spectrum of Tolkien’s creative and scholarly output ranging from his early abstract paintings in The Book of Ishness to the metrical brilliance of his poem Errantry and the touching tales he wrote for his children. The spectacular range of objects on display will include original manuscripts of his popular classics as well as lesser-known and posthumous works and materials, some of which will be on public display for the very first time.

This will all be in addition to his watercolors and annotated drawings for “The Hobbit” and other books, as well as personal objects, letters, photographs, and so on. I probably won’t be making it to England this summer, but I can tell you right now that I will absolutely be ordering a copy of the exhibition catalogue. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” will be at the Weston Library of the University of Oxford until October 28th.

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