The Courtier in The Federalist: Visit The Rockies And The Alps In One Location At Newark Museum

My latest for The Federalist is up this morning for your perusal. In it, I talk about my recent visit to the excellent exhibition, “The Rockies and the Alps: Bierstadt, Calame, and the Romance with the Mountains,” as well as acknowledge the fact that I have been remiss, in all of these years traveling to and from New York, in never stepping off the train to visit the Newark Museum before now – and I suspect many of my subscribers can say the same. I also discuss how exhibitions and institutions such as this, which are a vital part of our local communities, can be a great resource for homeschoolers, if they and the leaders of these institutions take advantage of the opportunity to work together.

A very special thank you to William L. Coleman, Associate Curator of American Art, and everyone at the Newark Museum, for a great tour and visit of their fascinating collections. If you find yourself in or passing through New Jersey this summer, as many will on their way to the Jersey Shore or to New York City, do stop in and make a day of it: there is so much to see within the vast complex of buildings, from fine art and decorative objects, to antiquities and scientific specimens. And as always I must gratefully acknowledge my editor, Federalist Executive Editor Joy Pullman, for creating something readable out of my excessively wordy musings.

SArgentOHara

The Courtier In Chicago: “Cloudy Witnesses”

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to speak to the Catholic Art Guild in Chicago on Saturday, May 5th, at 11:00 am. I’ll be speaking on a problem that has been plaguing the art world for some time now: cultural illiteracy in sacred art. The talk will take place at St. John Cantius, the grand, historic Baroque Revival church located on the city’s West Side. [N.B. On a side note, I’m looking forward to poking around this rather grand building, and snapping a mountain of pics for my IG account.]

I’ve tentatively titled the presentation “Cloudy Witnesses”. This is in reference to Hebrews 12:1 where, after recounting the lives of those who had gone before him in faith, the author speaks of the patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs as a “great cloud of witnesses” who inspire the Church. Yet in our present age, the shining examples of these people of faith, so often the subjects of great works of art, have in many cases become clouded over.

As Western society becomes more aggressively secularized, understanding of the meaning, purpose, and significance of Christian art is declining. Formerly well-understood iconography and symbolism is becoming obscure; meaning is being falsely re-interpreted and distilled through secular philosophies, which usually have little or nothing whatsoever to do with the beliefs of those involved in the creation of these works. Such factors, combined with the decline of standards in art education and art media over the past several decades due to an almost exclusive focus on secular, Modern, and Contemporary Art, have created a climate of widespread institutional and popular ignorance when it comes to sacred art. As part of my presentation, I will attempt to offer some practical proposals for addressing this situation, which I hope will both serve as a clarion call to my fellow Catholics, but which will also prove of interest to non-Catholics who admire and appreciate beautiful works of art.

I’ll be posting the link to the event once that goes live on the Guild site. For those of you unable to attend in person, please note that the Guild will be filming the event in order to make it available on YouTube at a future date. Past speakers before the Guild have included philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, architect Duncan Stroik, sculptor Anthony Visco, and many others, whose presentations you can find on the Guild site. I’m deeply honored that they would include me in such illustrious company.

Esglesia

Casting Light: Rediscovering The Value Of Copying In Art And Architecture

For centuries, artists and architects who wished to closely examine important sculptures or building elements had two choices. They could travel to see these works in person, which was often prohibitively expensive. Alternatively, they could study exact, three-dimensional copies of these works, known as “plaster casts”.

The most common way of creating these copies was to cover all or part of the original piece in plaster, and after the plaster had set, remove the plaster in one piece so as to leave a negative image. This would then serve as a  mould or “cast”, from which copies could be made, by pouring fresh plaster into the voids. In the case of large or complicated pieces, after all of the component pieces had been cast, the pieces could then be joined together, in order to create a complete, full-scale version of the original.

Beginning in the 16th century, artists and private collectors had plaster casts made of original works that they themselves could not possess, or that were located far away. They would display these pieces in their homes for themselves and their associates to study and discuss. This practice later became institutionalized, with art and architecture academies, as well as museums, obtaining plaster casts for their students and the public to see and learn from.

With the decline in classical education in the West, the idea of maintaining a gallery of such copies eventually fell by the wayside. The Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, one of the most popular sections of that institution, were once among the largest in Europe. Today, they do not display all of the casts in the museum’s possession, although they still give a good idea of the wide variety of what was considered worth copying. Visitors can see everything from small statues to entire walls, such as the copy of the famous Romanesque sculptural-architectural Portico de la Gloria, from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Here in the US, the Metropolitan had an enormous collection of such casts, numbering over 2600 works in all. They were removed from public view back in the 1950’s and placed in storage, but some have reemerged at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in New York. About 120 of the Met’s casts are at the Institute’s headquarters, where they can be studied by artists, architects, and the public, as originally intended by their donors. The Institute also offers drawing classes of these objects, for those interested in following this time-honored method of education.

Even if, as in my case, you appreciate aspects of both classical *and* modern art and architecture, the idea of “both and” is far more attractive than the choice of “either or”. Our major institutions have largely forgotten that to innovate for the future does not mean to abandon the study of the past. While studying a cast copy of a Baroque capital is never going to replace the impact of seeing the original, it is still an extremely valuable tool for promoting both education and connoisseurship for us today, as well as for future generations.