Thought-Pourri: Art News Roundup

I’m continuing with this weekly roundup of interesting news items about art, architecture, and design, because so far it seems readers are reacting positively. I’ve not settled on a permanent title for this feature, so if anyone cares to make suggestions on a more clever moniker, please share your thoughts in the comments! And now, on to the roundup.

Event: “Beauty and the Restoration of the Sacred”

This looks to be quite an event, if you are going to be in the Chicago area on October 29th – but you need to act now.

The Catholic Art Guild will be holding a day-long conference titled “Beauty and the Restoration of the Sacred” at The Drake Hotel (my favorite watering hole in the Windy City), featuring some of today’s most prominent voices advocating for the creation, preservation, and greater appreciation of beautiful art. The speakers will be writer and philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, architect Duncan Stroik, art/architecture professor Dr. Denis McNamara, and artist Anthony Visco. If you’re a fellow conservative interested in the arts, these are all individuals with whom you are already very, very familiar. The opportunity of getting to hear and meet all of them at the same event is an opportunity not to be missed.

The day will begin with Latin High Mass at the magnificent Baroque Revival church of St. John Cantius, which is without question the most beautiful church in Chicago, and then proceed to The Drake for presentations, dinner, and a concluding panel discussion. Frankly, if I could manage it with my schedule, I’d be there myself. So you’ll have to attend for me, and share your reactions with the rest of us in the Comments section.

PLEASE NOTE: Tickets must be purchased in advance, as they will not be available at the door, and you *must* book by Monday, October 23rd.

Conference

New Exhibit: Norwegian Nonsense

By way of complete contrast to the preceding, but demonstrating why such conferences are critical in this day and age, the four finalists for this year’s Lorck Schive Kunstpris – the most “prestigious” art prize in that country – are now on display at the Trondheim Kunstmuseum. Among these, perhaps the silliest is Mattias Härenstam’s “Limitation”, which features a dead birch tree attached to pulleys that drag the dessicated specimen around the gallery. I’m sure this is all very profound if you’re a Norwegian atheist with more bad taste than brains, but not falling into any of those categories myself, my recommendation would be to just ignore this show entirely, and instead go explore Trondheim’s superb Nidaros Cathedral, built between about 1000-1300 A.D.

Trondheim

Follow Up: Dalí, Disinterred

Regular readers will recall from these pages my reports on the long-standing efforts of psychic Pilar Abel to prove that she was the illegitimate offspring of the great Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), as the result of a (ahem) dalliance which she claimed took place between her mother and the artist back in the 1950’s. After many years of wasting everyone’s time and resources in several unsuccessful attempts to establish her paternity claim, it appears that the courts have finally had enough. A judge in Madrid has now dismissed the suit, and ordered Ms. Abel to pay associated costs, including those incurred during the disinterment of the artist’s remains back in July.

Dali

New Exhibit: Dalí, Designer

Speaking of Salvador Dalí, one genuine, platonic partnership which the artist actively engaged in during his lifetime was with Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973). To mark their many years of collaboration, the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida has just opened a new exhibition examining the work of the artist and the couturier, running through January 14th. Although today Schiaparelli is far less known than her contemporary and rival, Coco Chanel, for several decades until her retirement in the early ‘50’s, Schiaparelli was a force to be reckoned with in the design world, creating haute couture for women who wanted something more edgy than the more sensible, minimalist designs presented by Chanel. Schiaparelli collaborated with Dalí on a number of designs which blurred the line between art and clothing, including the famous “Lobster Dress”, worn here by the infamous Duchess of Windsor.

Windsor

New Exhibit: French King, Dutch Art

Another exhibition worth taking in, should you be so fortunate as to find yourself in Paris in the coming months, is “François I and Dutch Art”, which has just opened at The Louvre and runs until January 15th. King François I of France – sometimes jokingly referred to as, “Le Roi Nez” due to his prominent beak – was a major art collector and patron at the dawn of the French Renaissance. He famously managed to coax an elderly Leonardo Da Vinci to leave Italy, and go into semi-retirement at a country house located near the king’s principal residence in the Loire Valley. As this new exhibition points out however, François’ substantial art collection included much more than just the “Mona Lisa”, as he was particularly keen on acquiring or commissioning altarpieces, portraits, and scenes of everyday life from contemporary Dutch artists. Among the most interesting works is this very early genre scene by Bartholomeus Pons (active 1518-1541), depicting workers taking barrels down into a wine cellar. The picture has the crystalline precision one expects of Dutch painting from this period, combined with keen observations of everyday life, and a superb understanding of the complexities involved in rendering believable architectural perspective.

Pons

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Cleaning House: The Intellectual Challenge Of A Restored Chartres

Last week I shared with you the sad state of affairs at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, where an enormous amount of funds need to be raised to save the famous French Gothic church. Today I want to direct you to developments in an ongoing story which I’ve shared with you before, concerning the controversial restoration of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres. As (arguably) France’s most important Gothic cathedral, Chartres has always attracted a great deal of attention from architects, historians, and scholars – and of course, from pilgrims and tourists as well. With the latest phase of restoration completed and more still to come, some of the changes to what most people think of as the quintessential “Gothic” building are going to be quite shocking.

I’ll let the lengthy NYT piece speak for itself, but I particularly wanted to point out how the “Black Madonna of Chartres” is no longer: she’s back to her original white. In fact as the article points out at the end, she was originally the “White Madonna of Chartres”, as “White Madonnas” made of materials such as ivory, alabaster, or white marble were beloved in both Medieval France and Spain – hence the popularity of the names “Blanche” or “Blanca”. Over centuries of soot from candles, incense, and dust accumulating on their surfaces, these statue often developed a dark patina, turning their skin to a black or grayish color. You can see from these before and after images of Our Lady of Chartres, just how dirty this particular statue had become:

neg

blanc

Regarding the overall controversy in the art press of the restoration work underway at Chartres, I certainly admit to having a personal perspective – or bias, if you prefer. As someone who has not only studied and appreciated sacred art and architecture for most of my life, but who is also a practicing Catholic, I’ve always found commentary from non-Catholic historians and experts on Catholic art and Catholic buildings to be automatically suspect. In fact, many such highly-regarded commentators, when you dig a bit into their background and writings, are not only not Catholics, they openly hate the Catholic Church, or reject all religion generally.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that you have to believe in God in order to understand Catholic art and architecture. But any Catholic with an art or architecture background can share horror stories of visiting an exhibition, or watching a television documentary, and reacting in horror to the complete misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation of Catholicism by those involved.

Sometimes, the cause of this is simple ignorance. Just two weeks ago for example, I had to correct an international art dealer who had misidentified a late Renaissance painting of Saint Matthew as Saint Peter, when the image was so clearly of the former and not the latter that the error could have been corrected by a 6th-grader in a parochial school. At other times however, one gets the impression that many art experts class Catholicism as being no different from the now-dead worship of Ishtar or Zeus, conveniently forgetting or downplaying the fact that today, in 2017, over one billion people living around the world are members of the Catholic Church.

As Chartres becomes less of a dark, moody place, and returns to something more like its original appearance, there are legitimate concerns that should be considered, from those who want to make certain that the building is not being harmed in any way. But as a Harvard art professor quoted in the Times piece points out, there is “no reason to be nostalgic or romantic about the dirt,” because buildings like Chartres were “not monuments to melancholy.” These were places filled with light, color, and music, built to honor God, and to give believers a preview of the Heaven they are meant to strive for, as Catholics. These are functions which these structures still carry out, many centuries later.

Perhaps the real question we should be asking then, is whether a beautifully restored church poses an uncomfortable challenge to those who prefer to portray Catholicism as something dark, ruinous, and sinister in nature.

Notre Dame Is Falling Down: Why The French Need Our Help (Again)

If I asked you to name the most famous church in France, more likely than not you would pick the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Thanks to its prominent location in the French capital, its appearance in films, television, and works of art, and its significant influence on church design around the world, Notre Dame is perhaps the best-known religious building in France, even if it’s not quite the most beautiful or interesting church in that country. So it will no doubt grieve you to learn that, as a result of centuries of neglect, Notre Dame is falling down – and needs about 150 million euros to be saved.

As described by the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris charitable group:

Unfortunately, the architectural state of the cathedral is in very bad condition. This does not appear at first glance as the façade was restored in the nineties. However, below are a few examples of the urgent repairs needed :

  • the nearly 100 meter high spire and the 12 apostles that crown it have a large number of cracks and fissures that need an immediate restoration,
  • the aging stonework of all of the flying buttresses are causing problems for the stability of the whole building,
  • many pinnacles and gargoyles are in disrepair or have fallen down and
  • the lead framework of the stained glass windows is weakened

The Ministry of Culture summarized all these needed repairs in a 2014 audit. The overall cost of the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris is estimated to be around €150 million. This estimate includes both the base infrastructure as well as other architectural and cultural treasures. Ideally, these renovations need to be completed within the next 5 years, and at the latest within 15 years.

We can lay the blame for this situation at a number of doorsteps. The passage of time, pollution, declining Mass attendance, poor management, and other factors all have parts to play. However, I suspect that a significant part of the problem lies in the strange relationship which Notre Dame the building has with the congregation which it serves, or rather with the secular government which controls it.

For you see, rather bizarrely, the Archdiocese of Paris does not actually own Notre Dame. It is in fact the property of the French government, which permits the Church to use the Cathedral for religious purposes, but does not provide any funding toward the running of the building. There are comparatively small-scale government grants made to the building for historic preservation purposes, but on the whole, any major restoration costs fall on the Archdiocese’s tab. This head-scratching arrangement was codified at the turn of the previous century, but really began in 1789.

Of the many things which you were probably not taught in school about the French Revolution was the fact that churches like Notre Dame were stolen from the Church by the French government, and desecrated in the name of atheism. In addition to attacks on the fabric of these buildings themselves, where towers, facades, or sometimes even entire structures were torn down, countless works of art contained within them were destroyed or defaced. Graves of the dead buried within these churches were plundered and the bodies thrown onto scrap heaps, while innumerable numbers of books from their libraries were burned, all in the name of worship of the secular French state.

To substitute for Christianity, ceremonies were invented to celebrate the State, or amorphous concepts such as “Liberty”, albeit not a form of that concept which I daresay any reasonable person would care to live under. One of the more egregious examples of this, in the case of Notre Dame, was the celebration within its walls of “The Festival of Reason”, which was described by the Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle in his “The French Revolution: A History” (1837). As part of the bacchanal of blood involved in this event, an actress and prostitute – but I repeat myself – by the name of Amélie-Julie Candeille was dressed as a personification of liberty, paraded around Paris, and brought to the now-desecrated Notre Dame, so that she could be worshiped where the high altar once stood by the President of France and his toadies:

President and Secretaries give Goddess Candeille, borne at due height round their platform, successively the fraternal kiss; whereupon she, by decree, sails to the right-hand of the President and there alights. And now, after due pause and flourishes of oratory, the Convention, gathering its limbs, does get under way in the required procession towards Notre-Dame;–Reason, again in her litter, sitting in the van of them, borne, as one judges, by men in the Roman costume; escorted by wind-music, red nightcaps, and the madness of the world. And so straightway, Reason taking seat on the high- altar of Notre-Dame, the requisite worship or quasi-worship is, say the Newspapers, executed; National Convention chanting ‘the Hymn to Liberty, words by Chenier, music by Gossec.’ It is the first of the Feasts of Reason; first communion-service of the New Religion of Chaumette.

After the re-legalization of Christianity in the 19th century there was some improvement to the situation, in the form of an over-zealous restoration project headed by the legendary architect and theoretician Viollet-le-Duc. However, apart from the restoration of some windows after World War II, and the cleaning of the façade twenty years ago, there has been virtually no maintenance work on the Cathedral for nearly two centuries. It’s no wonder, then, that the building is quite literally falling to pieces.

Given the fact that Notre Dame is in the state that she is in is, at least in part, due to the abuse and neglect which she has suffered at the hands of the State, it seems to me that the only proper course of action is either for the French government itself to pay for her restoration, or for the State to wash its hands of the entire cause célèbre by returning ownership of the building to the Church. Neither of these things will happen, of course, since France is too busy paying for important necessities such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s $30,000 makeup bill. In addition, anti-Catholicism is so rooted in the workings of the State, that any attempt to return the Church’s rightful property to her would be doomed to legislative failure.

And so once again, it falls to the international community – and particularly Americans, natch – to take on the work which the French are too impotent to handle themselves. That’s not an excuse for us to sit back and do nothing, of course, while the Cathedral falls into ruin. But it’s rather embarrassing that, once again, the rest of the world has to come to France’s rescue.

Garg