Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.

Christ

Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.

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Art News Roundup: Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s Couch Edition

Perhaps the most famous quip – among many – made by President Theodore Roosevelt’s rather infamous eldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980), which she embroidered on a throw pillow displayed in her home, was “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” For the most part, I try to be positive about what I write here, pointing to items which I find interesting and which, I hope, my readers will find interesting as well. But sometimes, you have to sit right down next to Mrs. Longworth on her couch, and have a good chin wag over the nonsense which those of us who cover the art world are forced to put up with on a daily basis.

Take the current fawning of the art establishment over the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) for example. I suppose that, on the whole, one should be grateful when the black turtleneck brigade occasionally deigns to recognize that Western art existed before the 20th century. In the last few years, Gentileschi has become the darling of those who generally eschew sacred art and Old Master painting, because she has been made to fit into the narrative of contemporary feminism. Art media types – many of whom couldn’t distinguish a Frans Hals from a Franz Winterhalter – have been going into raptures over her art of late, resulting in a sudden spike in the commercial value of her paintings.

Yet when you look at her work as a whole, Artemisia turns out to be a bit of an Artemisi-yawn. She mostly painted herself (with her crazy, rolling eyes) dressed up as someone else: Cleopatra, Lucretia, a saint, etc. When she wasn’t painting rather lifeless and unappealing nudes, her preferred party trick as an artist was typically something involving men abusing women, or women getting revenge on men, or Judith doing something with the head of Holofernes, or women injuring themselves. Her paintings are often cold, bitter, and derivative of the work of other artists such as Caravaggio (1571-1610), her own father Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639), and others. No doubt she had talent, but there were plenty of other Italian Baroque painters whose abilities far exceeded hers, who remain largely unknown or unappreciated outside of specialist circles today.

Now, before everyone rushes to Gentileschi’s defense, I fully recognize that her tragic personal history no doubt influenced both her outlook on the world and the way she portrayed it on canvas. Nor should anyone assume that I am so stupid as to dismiss the work of a great artist because of her sex. As a matter of fact, I’m heading to Philadelphia this weekend to see a major retrospective on the work of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), the greatest of all the women Impressionist painters, and in my opinion a far better artist than, say, her undeservedly more famous contemporary Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).

But the truth of the matter is, while Gentileschi could certainly paint, she really wasn’t anything all that special. In this day and age of course, saying so goes against the popular grain. It’s like pointing out that Beyoncé could do with a vocal coach because she doesn’t actually sing very well: as an aside, it was beyond presumptuous of her to imagine that she could play the great Etta James on film, for example, when she clearly doesn’t have the pipes for it. By all means, go have a wander through the interwebz and check out Gentileschi’s work for yourself, but I suspect you’ll eventually come to the same conclusion that I have.

Assuming that Mrs. Longworth hasn’t asked us to leave at this point, let’s settle into our seats and have a few other strongly-worded things to say, as we look at some of the current news from the art world.

Burne-Jones Burn

In what must be one of the most scathing reviews of Pre-Raphaelite art written since the movement appeared in the 19th century, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones himself goes against the popular grain to let us know exactly why he can’t stand the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), who is the subject of a major retrospective that just opened at Tate Britain in London. The review points out – quite rightly, I might add – that after Burne-Jones settled into his artistic style in his early 20’s, he basically stagnated for the next forty years. Looking across the breadth of the artist’s output over such a long career, one comes to realize fairly quickly that his maidens are interchangeable, his monsters aren’t in the least bit scary, and on the whole everyone in his pictures seems to be utterly bored to death. While I don’t completely agree with some of Mr. Jones’ comparators, I do whole-heartedly agree with his conclusions, even though I realize that this risks my alienating those of you who had posters of this sort of thing in your college dorm room. “Edward Burne-Jones” opened at Tate Britain yesterday, and runs through February 24th.

Perseus

The Beacon Gets Lit

A “painting” [shudder] by Contemporary artist Mary Corse (1945-) caught on fire yesterday at the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, New York, home of the Dia Art Foundation. Ms. Corse creates minimalist works that combine things like canvas, tile, plywood, and electrical elements, into objects that look like bus shelter advertising frames without adverts which, for reasons best explained by others, are considered to be terrific art by those with more money than sense. Fortunately, no one was injured in the conflagration, but the piece, valued by some fool at $1 million, was significantly damaged. No word from the museum on which of Ms. Corse’s works was the culprit.

Museu

Ludicrous in Liverpool

It seems a bit off to me, in an age of constant complaints about “cultural appropriation”, that the art establishment would pay tribute to Contemporary sculptor Ugo Rondinone (1964-), an Italian-Swiss artist who lives in New York, for creating a prominent work for the city of Liverpool in the form of a contemporary totem sculpture. [N.B. It’s really just a pile of rocks painted with what looks like poster paint, rather than a sculpture, but there you are.] If the Scouser alderfolk actually wanted such an object, and I’m not sure what one would be doing in Liverpool, there are plenty of indigenous sculptors in the Americas who possess actual artistic talent for such things. No doubt they would have loved the possibility of creating such a public piece, rather than seeing it entrusting it to someone who is ripping off their culture in the most childish-looking way possible. My recommendation would be to dump this awful thing into the River Mersey and start over.

Crap

 

Art News Roundup: Restoration Edition

I’m both humbled and honored to formally announce that I’ll be moderating the closing Q&A and Panel Discussion at this year’s Catholic Art Guild Conference, titled “Formed In Beauty”, which is coming up at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on Sunday, November 4th. If you’re thinking about attending don’t delay too long, as tickets are now on sale but only until October 29th. This is an opportunity for all of those who care about beauty in the arts to meet with others of like mind, and thereby hopefully encourage the restoration of the beautiful not only in our churches, but by extension in our civic and domestic environments as well. If you missed Monday morning’s edition of the Son Rise Morning Show, you can catch co-host Anna Mitchell’s conversation with Catholic Art Guild President Kathleen Carr regarding this year’s Conference at about 1:51 if you follow this link.

And now, on to some other artsy stories.

A “Favourite” Film

Speaking of restoration, THE Restoration, as it’s known in the English-speaking world, which put the Stuarts back on the throne of England, ended with the reign of the rather odd and ungainly Queen Anne (1665-1714). Although it’s not out in the U.S. until Thanksgiving weekend, I currently have a film about Queen Anne on my radar, and want to put it on yours. “The Favourite” (teaser trailer here) stars Olivia Colman (probably best known to American audiences from the series “Broadchurch”), Emma Stone (Best Actress Oscar for “La La Land”), and Rachel Weisz (Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Constant Gardner”), so this is obviously no slouch production. I think Weisz, in particular, is worth seeing in just about everything she’s done – and yes, I include the “Mummy” films and “Constantine” in that assessment – but admittedly that’s just me.

The film explores the rise and fall of the “favourite”[British spelling], that particular friend of a monarch with whom the ruler shares their personal opinions and secrets, in a way which they cannot with their family or other courtiers. As you can imagine, the favourite occupies an enormously infleuntial position, and maintaining that position is a constant battle. In this case, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz) is in danger of being ousted from her position as royal BFF by her cousin, Lady Abigail Masham (Stone), when the latter arrives at court seeking a position.

Given the thematic material (there were rumors of an improper relationship between Queen Anne and Baroness Masham even at the time), this is probably going to be a film for discerning adults, rather than a history film that you can take the kiddos to. That being said, so far there is near-unanimity among serious film reviewers that all THREE actresses in the film should be nominated for Oscars this year, a feat which doesn’t happen very often. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival this summer, and Colman, who plays Queen Anne in the film, won Best Actress, so I expect quite a few more awards will be forthcoming. “The Favourite” opens in select U.S. cities on November 23rd.

film

Compassionate Carving

The other night I caught this documentary from NHK World, the English-language broadcaster in Japan, and wanted to share it with you since, while not about great works of art, it is very much about the restorative power of humble art created with great heart. Following the horrific loss of life in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, in which over 15,000 people were killed (and thousands are still reported as “missing”, even at this late date), a Buddhist priest in the northern Japanese city of Higashi-Matsushima was trying to find a way to restore inner peace for local survivors of the disaster. Many had lost some or all of their family, their homes, businesses, and everything they owned. He began to carve rustic statues of the Buddha and Buddhistic gods, and every year gives them away in an annual service at the local Buddhist temple.

The half-hour film, “Sculptures with Soul”, from NHK’s “Hometown Stories” series, is a touching and at times heartbreaking chronicle of human decency and resilience in the face of unimaginable suffering. It’s also quite a surprise coming from a culture which traditionally prides itself on its formality and reserve. Even if you know nothing about Japan or Buddhism, I want to encourage you to watch it while you can. The video is only available on the NHK website until October 6th; after that it may be elsewhere, but you’ll have to hunt about for it.

Japon

Purchasing Pugin

Sometimes, the art press comes a bit too late to the party.

As you may know, restoration and renovation of the Houses of Parliament in London is underway, and the effort will take several years to complete, given not only the vastness of the complex, but also the highly ornate Victorian decorative elements of the building. So it was exciting to learn from The Art Newspaper that one could purchase original 19th century encaustic Minton floor tiles designed by the great Augustus Pugin (1812-1852) which once covered the floors of the Palace of Westminster, as the building is properly known. Thousands of the tiles need to be replaced, given the wear and tear of nearly two centuries, and are being substituted with exact modern reproductions, as you can see here. Unfortunately, a visit to the Houses of Parliament online gift shop reveals that the tiles are all sold out. Perhaps an eagle-eyed reader will alert us, should any more of them go on sale at a later date.

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