Thought-Pourri: Cut The Crap Edition

You may recall the contretemps that took place back in 1999 when a work by overrated British Contemporary artist Chris Ofili entitled “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) went on show at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of the “Sensation” exhibition organized by the loathsome advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is perhaps best known on this side of the pond for an incident in 2013 involving his now ex-wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, while they were dining at Scott’s, my favorite London restaurant. The only reason you may have heard of Ofili, of course, is because of this particular piece, which “features a black Virgin Mary with exaggerated features, surrounded by butterfly-like images of women’s butts cut from porn magazines. Shimmering yellow, gold, and blue, the piece rests on two spheres of elephant dung; another adorns her breast.”

Unfortunately said work, which I will not illustrate here, is now coming back to New York – permanently. It was purchased by the (equally loathsome) hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen in 2015 for $4.6 million, and Cohen is now donating it to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. As someone commented to me recently, when they visit MoMA they have to avoid certain sections of the museum, and I would imagine that this piece will presumably be located in one of *those* galleries. It is a pity that our cultural institutions continue to proudly display work that can at best be described as poorly-executed manifestations of the workings of diseased minds, as supported by people of horrifically bad taste.

On that note then, on to some more interesting stories.

Saving Salus Populi

Now here’s an image of Our Lady which I’ll happily share with you. After months of careful cleaning and restoration, the medieval Byzantine icon of the Madonna known as the Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of the Roman People”) was recently put back on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Years of dirt, soot, and grime were removed, along with badly-executed previous overpainting, to reveal the original splendor of the image of Mary holding the Child Jesus. The painting is a particular favorite of the current Pontiff: he went to pray before it on the morning after his election, and comes to visit before and after every time he travels outside the country, leaving a bouquet of white roses when he does so. In a papacy filled with many regrettable moments to date, this is at least one thing for which I can roundly applaud this pope.

Clean

So Long, Chagall

In a bit of a Scylla and Charybdis situation, the National Gallery of Canada has decided to sell one of the paintings in its permanent collection in order to purchase another painting; what’s highly unusual about this story is that the Canadians are selling a Modern painting in order to purchase an Old Master. The painting that the museum wants is by the Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most important French painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment” (1779) is an extremely rare religious work by David, who was an anti-Catholic freemason, and dates prior to the French Revolution. The work that the National Gallery intends to sell is “The Eiffel Tower” (1929) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Personally, I’d rather have the Chagall, but I can understand the reasoning here. As you would imagine, this is what is known in the trade as a “developing story”, so stay tuned.

Jerome

Seeing Delacroix

Speaking of French art, The Louvre has just opened a major exhibition on the life and work of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1862), whose work as head of the Romantic school of French painting is essentially the antithesis of David’s. Personally, I’ve always found him something of a mixed bag, as I find the majority of his most famous works rather muddy and melodramatic. His portraiture, however, is often very interesting, such as in the 1837 self-portrait of the artist shown below.

If you can’t get to Paris between now and July 23rd, not to worry. The show will travel to The Met in New York from September 17th through January 6th, albeit at the slightly reduced size of 145 paintings instead of the 180 on show at The Louvre, since a number of the pieces in France cannot travel. This will be the first major American exhibition ever held on the work of Delacroix, which may cause some of us, myself included, to reconsider our currently-held views on this enormously important and influential 19th century artist. We shall see.

Autoretrato

 

 

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Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.

Rex

People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå gallerix.ru

Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Antolinez

To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.

Teniers

Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.

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.

Last

“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.

Smile

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.

Hobbit