Thought-Pourri: Happy Hippo Edition

It’s been a big week for art news since last week’s roundup, gentle reader.

The very, very big news is that Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which I shared some thoughts about earlier this week, sold for a whopping $450 million last night at Christie’s in New York. This is by far the highest amount ever paid for a single work of art in any art auction, ever, far outstripping the previous auction record holder, Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”, which sold for $179 million back in 2015. Despite the naysayers – and there are many – at the end of the day a Da Vinci is a Da Vinci, even if it’s a Da Vinci that’s not in especially good nick.

Meanwhile, the other big story is that rival auctioneer Sotheby’s is currently licking its chops, after the Massachusetts Appeals Court halted the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s auction of a series of paintings from its permanent collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell which had been donated to the museum by the artist himself. While the pictures in question are not of great importance in art history, the really interesting item here is how the courts will address the question of deaccession, which is always a thorny subject when it comes to art law. I’m not going to weigh in on the pro’s and con’s of the practice, but it will be interesting to see what the final result is, and whether it sets any precedents.

Anyway, on to some other, less portentous news items.

Happy, Happy Hippo

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of William, the Ancient Egyptian hippopotamus that has long been a symbol of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met has just opened a new exhibition featuring the beloved blue beastie. In addition, William will be feted with lectures, activities, and even cookies and cocktails named in his honor. William being, of course, the best of all possible boys’ names, and my childhood wish to become an Egyptologist notwithstanding, I’ve always had a soft spot for this little sculpture; perhaps I should look into obtaining a reproduction for myself. Check the Met’s website for a full of listing of exhibition and event details.

Hippo

The Queen’s Cranach

Technology once again comes to the rescue of the art world, in identifying a lost work by one of Germany’s most important Renaissance artists. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is perhaps best known for his paintings of naked ladies, who are so physically unappealing that it’s hard to understand why his pictures were so widely collected. He also painted portraits however, and it turns out that one of these – long thought to be a copy – was purchased by England’s Queen Victoria as a Christmas present for her German husband, Prince Albert. Personally, I don’t much care for Cranach, whose work was commissioned mostly by Northern Europeans with bad taste (probably because they couldn’t produce anything to rival what was being painted in Italy at the same time.) Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story, down to the rather grisly preparation method – pigeon tendons! – which helped confirm the authenticity of the picture.

Cranach

Clearly Contemporary Claptrap

Speaking of unappealing works of art, I’ve been saying for years that most of the Contemporary Art world is rather boring, and highly derivative in nature, since it constantly has to try to shock the viewer due to an inability to demonstrate much of anything in the way of skill and creativity. Marcel Duchamp hung a urinal on a wall and titled it “Fountain” a century ago, after all; much of what is supposedly avant-garde these days has been said by others, elsewhere, in more interesting ways. So it was particularly refreshing, in this review of a show at Turin’s brand-new OGR complex juxtaposing Ancient, Classical, and Contemporary Art, to find a reviewer who apparently agrees.

Turin

Restoring Russian Ruins

A few years after The Wall came down, we were visiting some friends in Munich who hoped to finally get back their family estate near Potsdam, which had been taken by the Soviets when Germany was divided after World War II; they eventually managed to secure the property and restore it. White Russians, on the other hand, have been waiting to reclaim their ancestral homes for roughly a century now, thanks to the Russian Revolution which broke out in November 2017. Some of these palaces were preserved, but the majority have long been ruins. This interesting piece in Art Daily is just a sampling of some of the problems faced by those trying to reclaim their family’s homes – such as, how do you get people to willingly travel hundreds of miles out in the middle of nowhere to fix up falling down old houses?

Estate

Sorolla and Stock Sale

For many years now, New York art dealer Otto Naumann has been one of the most hallowed names in the world of Old Master painting – and is certainly the most important dealer in this genre in the United States. Now that he’s retiring from the trade, Naumann has decided to sell off his remaining stock through Sotheby’s. In addition to Renaissance and Baroque religious, mythological, and still life paintings, works that will be coming to the auction block include some of what Old Master collectors would consider “Modern” art, such as this beautiful work by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) of a Castilian peasant pouring himself a glass of water. On their website, Sotheby’s has more on Naumann, his collection, and the upcoming multi-day sale of his stock, which will take place between January 26-31, 2018. If you happen to have a few million sitting around, or know someone who does, this is a sale not to be missed.

Sorolla

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The Pleasure Of Being “Indiscreet”

The discovery of the remains of the Palace of Greenwich – where Henry VIII. Mary I, and Elizabeth I were all born – has caused great excitement in the archaeology world over the last couple of days. I should say it’s caused a great buzz, since most news reports are focused on the discovery of an area in which it is believed that the Royal bees were kept for making honey. Originally called the Palace of Placentia, it was the primary London-area residence of the Tudors, beginning with Henry VII in the 15th century, who significantly expanded the Plantagenet palace which stood on the site. The Tudor residence was torn down by the Stuart monarch Charles II in the late 17th century, as he intended to build himself a vast new palace on the site – which, as it turned out, was never completed.

If you’ve been to London, you know that today the site is mostly occupied by a group of singular buildings: the Queen’s House, a small royal residence by the English classical architect Inigo Jones, and the grand Old Royal Naval College, a joint effort by three of England’s most important Baroque architects: Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hakwsmoor, and Sir John Vanbrugh. The most famous feature of the latter is its Painted Hall, which features a vast ceiling and wall paintings by Sir James Thornhill. Thornhill’s work celebrates the anti-Catholic effort to overthrow the Stuart Dynasty, spearheaded by the Dutch Protestant William of Orange and his English wife Mary – a repulsive, whinnying horse of a woman, who betrayed her father in order to get herself a nicer throne. As propaganda pieces ago, it really is over the top:

Thornhill

Coincidentally, over the weekend I happened to catch one of my favorite films, “Indiscreet” (1958), starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, which has an interesting connection to this hall at Greenwich.

Someone once described “Indiscreet” as a “soufflé of a movie”, which is an entirely accurate description. It doesn’t have a particularly high rating on most movie rating sites, probably because it’s a piece of entertainment that is meant exclusively for grownups – and perhaps somewhat sophisticated grownups at that. If you appreciate subjects such as art, ballet, currency policy, fashion, international politics, and theatre, brought together in the form of an unsung operetta – complete with plot devices such as disguises, jealousy, mistaken identity, romantic escapades, and the tinge of social scandal, all topped off by a memorable musical score – this is the film for you.

There are two critically important scenes in the film which were shot on location in the Painted Hall. These days location shots like this would not cause us to bat an eyelid, since they have become commonplace, but at the time they enormously increased the costs of production. This is particularly the case in “Indiscreet” given that, in both scenes, the Painted Hall played host to events that required hundreds of very well-dressed extras.

The first scene at Greenwich is a sequence in the early part of the film in which Bergman, invited at the last minute to a white tie dinner lecture where Grant is to be the guest speaker, begins to become infatuated with him. As you can see here, although he is supposed to be talking about post-war currency integration, which with hindsight we realize is a distillation of some of the main talking points in favor of the creation of what is now the Euro, he is perhaps more interested in his dinner partner than in the gold standard.

Grant

Similarly, Bergman doesn’t know a thing about international finance, and yet you would think she was listening to one of the best speeches she has ever heard.

Bergman

The second scene shot in the Painted Hall comes close to the climax of the film, when the two return to Greenwich for a formal dinner dance. It gives you the very rare cinematic sight of two of Hollywood’s most famous stars dancing together for quite a good length of time – something which Bergman herself very rarely did on film. While the two dance somewhat conventionally for part of the scene, Grant is given the opportunity to show off his slapstick skills – he trained as an acrobat before appearing in Vaudeville, something which many people forget – to great effect. Unfortunately what he doesn’t realize at this point in the film is that Bergman has discovered an important secret that he’s been hiding from her, which explains the annoyed expression on her face.

Grant2

Whether you’ve seen the Painted Hall at Greenwich or not, seeing “Indiscreet” is well-worth the effort. It captures a time in Western history in which we aspired to be something more than what we are – and something more, in fact, than what we have now become. I think you’ll find it a wonderful slice of light, enjoyable escapism for a Saturday night.

New Scans Reveal The Architectural Ingenuity Of England’s Persecuted Catholics

An interesting news item about using new technology to uncover a relic of England’s past caught my eye this morning.

Coughton Court is a grand country house in Warwickshire, England, built by the Throckmorton family over the course of several centuries, and whose descendants still live in it today. In one of the turrets of the primary entrance to the home, the Throckmortons constructed what is known as a “priest hole”, an architectural term with which you may not be familiar. Now, thanks to 3D scans, we can get a better sense of how this unusual space functioned, and how cleverly it was concealed within the building – but first, let’s have a bit of background.

Beginning in the latter half of the 16th century, it became an act of high treason for a Catholic priest to even set foot in England. Henry VIII had already closed all of the monasteries and seminaries, appropriating much of their property for himself. His daughter Elizabeth I furthered her father’s madness by having Catholic priests declared traitors under English law, while those who harbored them or attended Catholic religious services were de facto guilty of committing a felony. As a result, a number of Catholic families who refused to convert to Protestantism decided to build secret hiding places inside their homes, where Catholic priests could escape detection by the authorities.

Some of these spaces were just large enough for a single individual to hide in for a short period of time. Others were of more substantial size, including living quarters and even tiny chapels. In the case of the priest hole at Coughton Court, the occupant of the secret chamber had enough room for a bed and a portable altar, where he could celebrate the Mass in secrecy if needed.

In addition to operating a kind of Stasi police force aided by local informants, England employed special bounty hunters popularly known as “priest hunters”, in order to combat the phenomenon of priest holes. These men traveled the countryside looking for Catholic hiding places, often accompanied by builders, stonemasons, and carpenters, in the hopes of bringing back a Catholic priest in chains. However some of the priest holes were built so successfully, that they were only discovered centuries later. Even today, previously unknown hiding places are still being stumbled across during renovations and restorations of historic homes.

Perhaps one of the largest concentrations of these hiding places can be found at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, where a total of seven priest holes were concealed throughout the house by the Pakington family. These rooms are believed to be the work of St. Nicholas Owen, a builder and carpenter who constructed many such holes (or “hides”, as they are sometimes called) over the course of several decades. As his experience in designing these spaces increased, his work became more and more clever, and difficult for the priest hunters to detect. Nevertheless, he was eventually captured and executed in 1606, and was canonized a saint by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

While we don’t know who built the priest hole in the tower at Coughton Court, being able to see how this ingenious structure fits into the building is a fascinating use of technology. Whoever designed this hiding place was particularly clever, in that he created a stacked structure to avoid detection. Even if the authorities managed to discover the first priest hole, which would be empty other than for some bedding and other materials, they would be unlikely to realize that this space was just a decoy: the real priest hole was lying just underneath it, as the scans clearly show. Given the narrow and cramped location of the hiding place inside the house, these new 3D scans give the public a much better picture of how this concealment would have worked, than might be appreciated by simply viewing the structure from the outside.

In our present age, it sometimes seems as though we may need to return to the construction of priest holes at any moment. For the clergy, places like Coughton Court are reminders that Holy Orders can often be accompanied by great suffering. And for the laity, the courage of families like the Throckmortons to build these places, even at the risk of losing everything, ought to inspire us to bravely face whatever the future holds.