Art News Roundup: Fixing Fixation Edition

Something that first-time visitors and old hands alike always enjoy, when they visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is the ability to look into some of the workrooms located in the basement of the basilica. Thanks to a carefully planned layout, the underground space contains not only a multi-media museum chronicling the history of the building, but one can also take a peek through soundproof glass walls into spaces where architects, artists, and engineers are at work on the ongoing project, which just reached a whopping 328 feet tall a couple of weeks ago. (Only 232 more feet to go!)

Public interest in seeing art experts at work has led to a phenomenon referred to by some as “process porn”. It turns out that people love to watch other people as they design replacements for missing portions of decorative objects, clean sculptures blackened by time and candle soot, or repair holes and flaking on old paintings. Although this particular article focuses on such efforts at the Huntington in California, similar spaces exist in other museum conservation spaces as well. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for example, visitors can check out “Conservation in Action”, where the MFA announces works that are coming up for treatment, and invites the public to come along and watch. And if you can’t make it to one of these institutions, not to worry: there are plenty of Instagram accounts where you can see these experts doing their thing.

As a bit of a teaser, in the weeks to come – God willing and the creek don’t rise – you’ll be seeing a lengthy Federalist article from me along these lines, detailing the cleaning, conservation, and restoration of a Baroque painting that I picked up at auction over the summer. No, I’m not doing the work myself, but I’ve asked the conservator to fully document and photograph her work, which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I do. Never let it be said that I’m off trend.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some recent stories about works that need a bit of TLC.

Brand-New Blue

After more than a decade of restoration, including such things as microscopic analysis of original gilding and painstaking research into historic textiles, the famous Blue Room in the White House is finally getting its (rather grandiose) suite of French Empire furniture back. Originally created by Parisian cabinet maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (1757-1827) on order from President James Monroe, the set was sold off by President James Buchanan in the late 1850’s, when the Empire style went out of fashion; it was reacquired piecemeal a century later thanks to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who supplemented pieces that were missing or destroyed with exact copies from the originals. Visitors to this year’s White House Christmas Open House should take note.

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Titian Tumble

The bad news is that a painting of the Crucifixion by Titian (1488-1576), painted circa 1555, was damaged when it fell off the wall in the sacristy of El Escorial, the basilica-monastery-palace-necropolis of the kings and queens of Spain, just outside of Madrid. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the damage was limited to a tear in the lower part of the canvas. The life-sized picture, acquired by Felipe II a year after Titian painted it, is roughly seven feet tall, and was immediately taken away to restorers. The culprit here appears to be a deterioration of the plaster wall into which the painting had been anchored.

Tizano

Bringing Back Bruegel

Staying in Spain, albeit just briefly, ahead of a major retrospective in Vienna on the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) the Prado recently completed a two-year cleaning and restoration of Bruegel’s magnificent “The Triumph of Death” (c.1562), one of the artist’s largest (at more than 5 feet across) and most compelling paintings. Crammed with figures getting their individually-tailored comeuppances as a result of their mistreatment of others, this a gruesome but fascinating piece, clearly inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) a generation or so earlier. It’s also a kind of last, highly anachronistic gasp of Northern Gothic, even as the Renaissance itself was already on the way out in Italy. During the Prado’s treatment of the painting, lost details were recovered, and missing portions were carefully replaced by studying copies of the painting executed by Bruegel’s sons and assistants. The Prado has indicated that this is the first and only time it will be lending “The Triumph of Death” to an exhibition, which makes me think they’re expecting a major loan from the Austrians in return. “Bruegel” is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna now through January 13th.

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Art News Roundup: Palace Plunder Edition

In honor of the 300th birthday of one of America’s greatest cities, one of the greatest art collections in the world is (partly) being put back together in the Big Easy, more than two centuries after that collection left the Parisian palace it used to call home.

From October 26th of this year to January 27th of next year, the New Orleans Museum of Art (“NOMA”) will be hosting “The Orléans Collection”, an exhibition that reassembles around forty of the paintings from a collection that was once the envy of all of Europe. Louis XIV’s nephew Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans (1674-1723), for whom the city of New Orleans is named, collected dozens of masterpieces by artists like Raphael, Titian, and many others. Today, the art that was once in his collection resides in museums around the world, from Edinburgh to St. Petersburg.

The Orléans Collection met its end when Duke Louis Philippe II, great-grandson of its founder, decided to betray the family during the French Revolution. He renamed himself “Philippe Égalité”, and turned the Palais-Royal – the family palace in Paris where the paintings once hung – into a libertine amusement park. In 1792, he plundered the collection, selling much of it off in a failed attempt to get himself out of debt. To add murder to the crime of treason and otherwise being a complete waste of space, the following year “Égalité” voted in favor of the execution of his cousin, King Louis XVI, a fact which shocked and grieved the King and the entire royal family.

Karma being a beotch, however, the following year “Égalité” ended up being guillotined himself: a perfect instance of good riddance to bad rubbish.

Between 40-50 of the paintings that formed the core of the Orléans Collection will be on display at the NOMA show, including works by Poussin, Rembrandt, and Veronese, among others. This is a very rare opportunity to see part of this family’s magnificent collection brought back together, so worth taking the time to see if you find yourself in New Orleans over the next few months. And what better way to mark the birth of the epicurean city of New Orleans, than by celebrating the epicurean taste of the man for whom the city was named.

DavAb

And since we’re talking about plunder from palaces, let’s continue with some art news discoveries from other, palatial collections.

Hampton Court Hangings

On Tuesday, I watched a new video from Gresham College in London by (favorite) British art and architecture historian Simon Thurley, discussing themes and materials in Tudor art. In the course of the lecture, he discussed how the pinnacle of art, so far as the Tudor court was concerned, lay in the area of tapestries; King Henry VIII was known to have spent a fortune on them, including a set specially commissioned for Hampton Court Palace showing scenes from the life of St. Paul, that had later gone missing. Well lo and behold, one of those Pauline tapestries has just reappeared, and in of all places, Barcelona. It seems that this one was purchased by a Barcelona antiques dealer in the 1960’s, and sold to a private collector there, who has now sent it to antiquarian textile specialists Simon Franses in London for cleaning and conservation. The gallery will be displaying the work to the public from October 1st to October 19th, along with several other tapestries related to Henry VIII and the Tudor period.

Pau

Florentine Fumble

Speaking of tapestries, in the film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, Henry Jones, Sr. notes that curator Marcus Brody once got lost in his own museum. While the remark goes to Marcus’ somewhat befuddled character, the reality is that in many cases, museum collections are so vast that the staff don’t know or lose track of what they have in storage. This is a continuing problem in the art world, which I’ve written about previously, both here and in The Federalist.

Such it seems is once again the case, this time with the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, where a 1st century AD statue long thought to represent Queen Leda of Sparta has now been determined to be one of Aphrodite, which the Museum had apparently forgotten about or lost track of over the years. The piece had been acquired in 1882 by the Museum’s then-director, when the historic Palazzo Da Cepparello, where the marble figure had stood for centuries, was being converted into a rather palatial bank. Thanks to a grant from that most excellent American cultural foundation Friends of Florence, the statue – which has an interesting history and is not what it appears to be at first sight – has been cleaned and preserved for another 2,000 years. Hopefully she won’t get misplaced again this time.

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Versailles Visitors

Highly acquisitive and rather tacky fellow that he was, the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France loved to receive lavish gifts; one can imagine that when, in 1686, he received dozens of diplomatic gifts from the King Narai of Siam (modern Thailand), including gold, silver, and other objects, that he relished the occasion. Among these was a specially commissioned Chinese silver ewer, bearing the French royal arms. It, along with everything else from that diplomatic visit, went missing from the Palace of Versailles sometime after the early 18th century, but the ewer was rediscovered just recently by the French auctioneers Beaussant Lefèvre as they were researching the sale of a private collection. The Palace has now bought back the vessel, and visitors will be able to see it in the setting for which it was originally created.

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Art News Roundup: Quadruple Dutch Edition

Only someone with such extraordinarily bad taste as the Bonapartes would have approved of it, but news is that the French Imperial Canoe – yes, you read that correctly – created for the midget dictator and then pompously over-modified by Napoleon III is being restored. The barge was originally a (comparatively) more sober, Neoclassical affair, designed by a French shipbuilding engineer, but provided with decorative elements by a Dutch sculptor from Antwerp. Appropriately enough, it was built for Napoleon’s secret visit to the city of Antwerp in 1810, to inspect the French fleet and view the arsenal which the French were stockpiling in that Dutch port city. Later, it was given additional sculptural elements by Napoleon III, including the sculpture of Neptune on the prow and the imperial crown supported by angels over the cabin.

FRANCE-HERITAGE-NAVAL-NAPOLEON

That it has survived at all is rather remarkable, given that it was supposed to be only a temporary craft, and also given the political vicissitudes of the Bonapartes and the multiple wars which they and others brought upon France in the 200 years since the canoe was created. Bizarrely enough, it survived World War II due to the Nazis, of all people, who transferred it from the port city of Brest, where it had been held in dry dock, to the newly-established French Naval Museum in Paris. Had they not done so, the boat would likely have been destroyed during the Allied bombings of Brest in 1943. Following restoration, the rather cheesy canoe will go on display back in Brest next year, before eventually returning to Paris.

And speaking of cheese, let’s now move on to some more art news with a distinctively Dutch flavor, like a good chunk of smoked Gouda.

Rediscovered Rembrandt

Another week, another “missing” Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) has been identified, this time a scene of Jesus and the children as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel. While this is a major find from the point of view of art history, personally I’ve never cared for Rembrandt, and I find his religious pictures particularly bad, for reasons which this canvas makes patently clear, but there you are. What’s rather interesting in this case is that Dutch art expert Jan Six, who is in fact a descendant of a contemporary patron and collector of Rembrandt’s work (Rembrandt painted his ancestor’s portrait), had his eureka moment when he recognized that one of the figures in the painting was a self-portrait of Rembrandt himself, while another figure is likely Rembrandt’s mother. This is a very good example of why it’s important to look at and handle art objects as often as possible: the more you see, the better your eye gets.

Rembrandt

Dueling Van Dycks

Meantime, in a rather interesting auction house development, two very late portraits by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) of the future King Charles II and his sister Princess Mary were announced for sale at Sotheby’s this coming December. The very next day Christie’s said, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well, our van Dyck is better.” And it certainly is: the Christie’s portrait of Princess Mary is of better quality than the Sotheby’s one. The conundrum for the collector is, do you want one really beautifully executed painting, or do you want a pair of decent but less exceptional ones?

Princesa

Vanishing Van Gogh

Perhaps the most significant remaining mystery of World War II, when each incident is combined to be considered as part of a collective question, is what happened to the art looted by the Soviets and hauled back to Russia at the end of the war. Moscow has never been completely forthcoming about all of the pieces taken by the Red Army, whether officially or unofficially, in an action which the Russians have always justified as being a kind of tit-for-tat compensation for their own losses at the hands of the Nazis. Yet occasionally, stories about what lies hidden in the vast storerooms of state-owned museums in Russia do emerge, such as the fact that the preparatory drawing for Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) much-beloved masterpiece, “Starry Night” (1889), has been sitting somewhere in Moscow or St. Petersburg for decades.

Gogh