Thought-Pourri: Protesting Pygmalions Edition

An interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times discusses an issue which many of us, myself included, probably did not know existed. Developers in a number of cities are required, as part of their development plans, to either include works of art in their public spaces or pay for the acquisition of publicly-accessible art. Increasingly, more of these builders are fighting against their obligation to do so, claiming that these ordinances amount to an “art tax”.

When we get down to brass tacks, the core of the argument that these developers are making is really an economic, rather than a philosophical one. They are in the business of building, not of being unwilling patrons of the arts, they claim. But there are also aesthetic issues to be raised here, and both the New York Times article and a similar article from today’s Washington Post are silent as to that larger, and to my mind more important area of inquiry.

At the end of the day, who gets to decide what goes where? What are the qualifications of those who mandate that something is worthy of public display, or of being placed where it ultimately goes? In a majority of cases, the art is created by Contemporary artists who demonstrate little actual talent, bear prosaic descriptions like “Untitled”, and are made of materials that decay rapidly in the elements, quickly becoming little more than an expensive eyesore that must be removed a decade or so later. These works are often selected by a committee of alleged experts with a particular socio-political agenda to push, and whose bad taste in art is patently obvious. Why should a property developer be forced to underwrite the acquisition or commission of these objects? Feel free to weigh in below, in the comments section.

And now, on to some art news of possible interest.

Good for Glasgow

After weeks of speculation following a devastating second fire at the Glasgow School of Art, one of the architectural masterpieces of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Director Tom Inns says that the School will be rebuilt. Because the structure was undergoing restoration at the time of the fire, many of the interior elements salvaged or recreated following the first fire were stored off-site at the time of the second blaze, and because of the rebuilding that was underway at the time of the latest disaster, accurate measurements and exact details were copiously documented using the latest available technology, making it comparatively easier to begin again. No word at this time regarding how long this rebuilding will take, what it will cost, or who is to blame for fire #2.

Glasgow

Dragons! Now In 3-D!

Kew Gardens, a favorite green space for Londoners for centuries, is one of the best botanical gardens in the world, recognized both for its beauty and for the scholarship of those who work there. One of the most striking architectural features of the park is the Great Pagoda, built in 1762 by Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House in The Strand. Originally, the ten octagonal-shaped stories of the tower were studded with carved, Chinese-style dragons, but over the years the majority of these sculptures rotted away or were stolen. Now, following a major restoration effort, all 80 of the gilded beasties are back, with the ones on the first floor being made of cedar, while those on the upper floors are made of much lighter fiberglass, using a 3D printer.

Drac

Blotto for Lotto

Sadly, I am going to miss an exhibit at The Prado in Madrid which those of my readers who find themselves there over the next few months should make a point of seeing. “Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits” opened a couple of weeks ago, and is the first exhibition dedicated solely to the portraiture by this Italian Renaissance genius, whose work is perhaps not quite as well known as it ought to be; that should change after this show, which following its sojourn in Madrid will head to the National Gallery in London beginning November 5th. Lotto (c. 1480 – 1556/57) is a complex, occasionally inscrutable artist when it comes to his religious pictures and allegories, but he also drew beautifully, and his portraits are, at times, almost confrontational meetings between subject and viewer. One of my favorite paintings by Lotto, his magnificent portrait of the Venetian merchant and art collector Andrea Odoni (1527), which is owned by Queen Elizabeth II, is included in the show. For that reason alone, this exhibition would be worth your time, should you find yourself in Madrid or London in the coming months.

Lotto

Thought-Pourri: Much Ado About Mucha

If you’re at all familiar with the work of the Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), it’s probably from his posters of languid maidens and nymphs with impossibly tangled tresses of hair, which were used to advertise everything from champagne to chocolate at the turn of the previous century. What is less known, at least to most American audiences, is the series of colossal paintings which he executed between 1910 and 1928 collectively known as “The Slav Epic”, illustrating the history of the Slavs from their origin stories through the end of the 19th century. The smallest of these truly epic canvases measures about 13 feet by 15 feet; the largest, about 26 feet by 20 feet. I’ve always been fascinated by them, as they are perhaps the most monumental Art Nouveau works of art ever created – certainly on canvas.

Mucha

The seed money for the project came from a Chicago philanthropist, Charles Crane (1858-1939), whose father become a millionaire following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 as a result of manufacturing the thousands of feet of pipe needed to provide steam heat for the gigantic towers that began to sprout over the city. Because of its sheer size (there are twenty giant canvases in all) displaying Mucha’s masterpiece has always been a significant challenge. For many decades, “The Slav Epic” was housed in an old castle about 130 miles from Prague, making it difficult for all but the most dedicated devotees of the artist’s work to see the cycle, and its history has been as tangled as the hair of a Mucha beauty.

Mucha died shortly after being interrogated by the Gestapo, and his work was hidden from the Nazis, who wanted to stamp out Slavic culture in favor of a Teutonic narrative. With the arrival of Soviet domination, Mucha’s work was seen as too nationalistic, as the Russians wanted to stamp their brand of identity on the Czech people much as the Germans had attempted to do before them. After the fall of communism, legal disputes over ownership of “The Slav Epic” lasted for years, until the works were finally taken to Prague in a move which is still highly controversial within the Czech Republic.

Now, Prague is finally taking steps to do what both Mucha and Crane intended from the beginning, which is to create a permanent home for the paintings in the Czech capital. The Lapidarium, a rather grand museum of sculpture in need of significant restoration, will be modified to create a large gallery for “The Slav Epic”, with renovation work expected to cost over $27 million. While this amount may sound like a lot, I can practically guarantee that once the new gallery is opened, this will undoubtedly become one of the top tourist attractions in the Czech Republic, for art lovers, historians, and the curious alike, In the meantime, the paintings will go on display at Prague City Hall to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the former Czechoslovakia in October 1918.

And now, on to some other art news stories.

Nincompoops In Navarra

While it will probably not become the unintentional icon of contemporary society as the infamously botched “Ecce Homo” did in the town of Borja several years ago, another small church in Spain is now reeling from a terrible attempt at restoration. Rather than reach out to a professional conservator, the parish of San Miguel de Estella in the province of Navarra asked a local art teacher to tidy up a 500-year-old polychrome wooden statue of St. George that was looking its age. The end result, as you can see, is rather horrid; it reminds me a bit of Dirk the Daring from the classic early 80’s arcade video game “Dragon’s Lair”. The lesson here, kids, is that if you want to restore a work of art, you need to go to a professional restorer: don’t try this at home.

Jordi

Homecoming At The Huntington

A story from last month that I’ve been waiting to read more about, but haven’t seen much else about to date, involves the reunification of three parts of a 15th century Italian Renaissance altarpiece at The Huntington Library in California. The work was created in about 1470 by the Florentine artist Cosimo Rosselli (1439–1507), master of the more well-known Florentine painter Fra Bartolomeo, but at some point in the past it was chopped into several pieces by an unscrupulous art dealer, so that the components could be sold off individually. The central image of the Madonna and Child has been in the Huntington family collection since the beginning of the 20th century, when collectors such as Mrs. Huntington, Isabella Stewart Gardner, J.P. Morgan, and others were importing art from Europe on a vast scale in order to decorate their luxury apartments and massive vacation homes. Now, the paintings which feature the figures of St. Anthony Abbot and St. Athanasius will be reunited, or more correctly, placed alongside, the main portion of Rosselli’s dismembered masterpiece.

Huntington

Monsters At The Morgan

The Morgan Library in New York recently opened what looks to be an interesting exhibition, for those of you who, like me, find the world of fantastical beasts and dragons imagined by artists of the Middle Ages to be endlessly fascinating. “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders” looks at how these creatures were used to illustrate stories or concepts, enhance or detract from individuals and groups, and share supposed knowledge of unknown lands as a kind of warning to those who were curious about the world around them. There is a fairly comprehensive overview of the exhibition here, although I can’t say that I agree with all of the reviewer’s conclusions, and as is de rigueur these days, the show has a SJW political element, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention to the opinions of the curators in order to admire the art. The exhibition runs through September 23rd.

Babylon

Here Be A Dragon

Architecture is a funny old game. Even with high-powered machinery, computer-aided drafting, and the like, projects sometimes drag on for quite a long period of time, and never completely come to fruition.  The same was certainly true of the work of some of the greatest architects of the past, who sometimes had to abandon what they had started due to lack of funds, politics, or the like.

The great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was no exception. Even casual students of his work are familiar with his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, still under construction nearly a century after his death, but other projects by the great master never quite got completed either. One example is the Park Güell, a housing development he designed in the NE corner of the city; or the Colonia Güell, a company town located outside of Barcelona. What both of these projects have in common was their sponsorship by Gaudí’s greatest patron, Count Eusebi Güell.

Gaudí did manage to finish Güell’s mansion in downtown Barcelona, the Palau Güell, located off the Ramblas in the former Chinese Quarter.  However like many 19th century Barcelona industrialists, Güell wanted a weekend and holiday retreat that was outside the city center, which would afford him and his family more space, fresh air, and tranquil surroundings. The same phenomenon was occurring in major cities all over the world, from London to New York to Tokyo, where business leaders would purchase or build such retreats in towns and villages not too far from the cities in which they worked, so that they could be reached in a few hours by coach, train or the like.

Güell’s decision to have his summer house in the Les Corts district near Pedralbes, which was then well outside the city, was one imitated by many of his Barcelona contemporaries. However none of the grand mansions which popped up in the neighborhood in the 19th and 20th centuries had anything quite like the unusual gatehouses known today as the “Pavellons Güell”. They were just part of a colossal scheme by the Catalan architect and his patron to create what would have been a fantasyland, complete with remodeling the existing house to look like a Moorish Revival palace, surrounded by vast gardens, and featuring several ornate entrance gates, all encompassed by decorative walls.

Unfortunately, Gaudí never got to redesign the house. It was later presented to and transformed into the Palau Reial de Pedralbes by the Spanish Royal Family. They themselves hardly used it (although General Franco did) and today King Felipe VI prefers to stay in the less-grand Palauet Albéniz overlooking the sea, when he is in town. The pavilions were given to the University of Barcelona, with public access strictly limited to guided tours on specific weekends during the year.

After languishing in limbo for some time – what do you do with stables and gatehouses no longer attached to an estate? – as a result of a deal between the city and the university, for the past few months Barcelona has been working to restore the buildings, in order to make them accessible to the paying public. The city plans to invest close to $1 million in bringing the pavilions back to their former appearance.  For a fee, the plan is allowing the public to visit these previously almost-inaccessible works of the great architect, and to make their surrounding gardens, also partially laid out by Gaudí, more accessible.  The hope is to make the pavilions available for things such as concerts, lectures, community events, and the like. Imagine having your wedding reception or anniversary dinner catered in one of these buildings!

True these may rank, in terms of size, among the smallest of Gaudí’s completed buildings.  However, it is wonderful to see new life being breathed back into these fantastical structures, after so many years of benign neglect. While their original purpose may have vanished long ago, their extraordinary design continues to fascinate us today, more than 125 years after the magnificent gate pictured below first swung open to receive visitors.

Dragon Gate