Art News Roundup: Pompeiian Pooch Edition

Despite the fact that they were first excavated beginning way back in the 18th century, the Ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are continuing to yield fascinating finds for archaeologists, historians, and art lovers alike.

A find which could prove to be of enormous historic, if not artistic, significance has just been announced as part of the Great Pompeii Project, a major excavation, conservation, and restoration effort that began at the site in 2011. Archaeologists have found a wall with a bit of graffiti, written in charcoal, bearing the date October 17th. The writing is believed to be a note written by a workman who was in the middle of a home renovation project. If that’s correct, then the date of the destruction of Pompeii, which is traditionally placed on August 24, 79 AD, is wrong, and the history books will need to be rewritten.

Meanwhile, other excavators working at the site have uncovered an outdoor room which the press is now referring to as “The Enchanted Garden”, thanks to the magnificent frescoes contained within it. The room, or more properly the lararium, was where a wall shrine to the household spirits was kept. The family who lived in the house would make daily offerings here, in order to keep these bearers of good fortune about the place, and it was also a pleasant place to sit, protected from the elements but within reach of flowers and other plants.

While these spaces were common in Roman residential construction, this one is particularly interesting not only for its well-preserved beauty, but also for the presence of a dog-headed humanoid in one of the frescoes. It’s possible that he is the Egyptian god Anubis (or an individual wearing an Anubis mask). You may recall from your history books that Egypto-mania hit the Romans when Cleopatra came to live with Julius Caesar in 46 BC. No word yet on when this lararium will be open to visitors.

Dog

Watching the Watchmen

Regular readers will recall that last week I reported on how art conservation pron has become a thing in the museum world, attracting scores of visitors who want to see art experts at work on cleaning and restoring works of art. Well now, in what may be the most singular example of this trend, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has announced that Rembrandt’s greatest masterpiece, “The Night Watch” (1642), a detail of which appears below, will be undergoing a very public cleaning and conservation, beginning next summer. For those of you who won’t be in Holland at the time, not to worry: the museum intends to livestream the restoration on the interwebz.

Remb

Reunited Ruffs

Speaking of art conservation and the Dutch, should you find yourself in Ohio between now and early January, you’ll definitely want to check out “Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion”, which just opened at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition brings together three paintings (a pre-restoration detail of one of the canvases appears below) by the great Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) of groups of figures which, subsequent to cleaning and restoration, art historians have only just realized were portions of a large-scale portrait painting of members of the Van Campen family. The original painting was likely chopped up at some point after Hals’ death as a result of damage, with the incongruous bits painted over by a later restorer to make the pieces more commercially marketable. After Toledo, the show will head to Brussels, and later to Paris.

Hals

Measuring De Morgan

If you love computer-generated geometric designs such as fractals, and happen to find yourself in the UK in the next couple of weeks, then you’ll be interested in catching an exhibition that will be closing soon at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London on the work of the great English decorative arts designer William De Morgan (1839-1917). De Morgan is one of the most important of all Arts and Crafts era artisans, thanks in part to his designs for the company founded by his friend and contemporary William Morris (1834-1896). While De Morgan is often thought of as being fascinated with the exotic in his chargers, vases, and tiles, such as the ones shown below, bringing in references to the Middle Ages, India, and Persia, this new exhibition takes a look at the mathematical studies which helped him to come up with and execute geometrically complex designs by hand, without the benefit of CAD. “Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs” closes on October 28th.

Morg

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Art Sleuthing: The Painting Beneath The Picasso

Thanks to modern technology, we are more accustomed to the idea that painters have re-used their own canvases to create different works later on, for various reasons. we don’t often appreciate that sometimes, an artist might reuse the canvas of another artist, as well. Such is the case with a new discovery made at Northwestern University in Chicago, after examining a painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) now owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario (“AGO”). That story is interesting enough in itself, but I hope to add some armchair art sleuthing to it, if you’re willing to bear with me.

“La Miséreuse accroupie” (1902) [N.B. which I would have translated as, “Crouching Beggar Woman”, but be that as it may] is a painting from Picasso’s “Blue Period” of 1901-1904, when many of his works were heavily blue in tone and indeed in subject matter. At the time, the young Picasso was both professionally frustrated and severely depressed, a combination that affected his palette and his outlook. He was also spending a great deal of time traveling back and forth between Barcelona and Paris, trying to make a name for himself, and painting in both cities. Alongside his friend the Catalan Post-Impressionist painter Isidre Nonell (1872-1911), with whom he shared studio space in Paris, he spent time observing socially marginalized people, such as the mendicants who sat outside of church doors and on street corners, begging for money or food.

Mendiga

Via a partnership between the AGO and the National Gallery here in DC, scientists at Northwestern were asked to closely examine the painting, since it was apparent that another painting lay underneath the surface that we currently see. Using infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging and other techniques, they found that the present work was painted over a landscape painting, which had been turned 90 degrees, and elements of which were used by Picasso in completing the final image. It is not known who painted the landscape, and the article does not identify what the landscape depicts.

Underneath

However, gentle reader, while I cannot tell you who painted the landscape, I believe that I can tell you what that landscape depicts: in fact, I recognized it immediately, given the Barcelona context for the painting’s origin.

The round, temple-like structure at the center of the underlying image is almost certainly the pavilion dedicated to Danaë, mistress of Zeus and mother of the Greek hero Perseus, which is located inside the park known as the Laberint d’Horta (“Labyrinth of Horta”), in the NE end of the city. Named for its intricate maze of hedges, the garden was originally laid out in the late 18th century as part of a country estate, and was expanded by the same family over the ensuing decades. Eventually it became a major cultural meeting point, not only for high society, but for thinkers as well.

Horta (2)

Like many of the northern neighborhoods of modern-day Barcelona, Horta was originally a town located a few miles outside of the city. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the well-to-do began to build weekend homes for themselves in these areas, so as to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and more open spaces afforded by these neighborhoods in the foothills of the Collserola Mountains that ring the city. Antoni Gaudí’s famous Park Güell development project is perhaps the most famous example of how the Catalan bourgeoisie began heading to the local hills on the weekend, building Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts mansions for themselves. Over time, the city grew up to swallow the empty spaces that lay between these villages and the downtown core.

By the late 19th century, even though it was still privately held by the family who originally commissioned it, the Laberint d’Horta was functioning as a sort of mini-Bois de Boulogne, where fashionable people could go to stroll or sit outdoors, and sometimes to hear concerts or see plays. When Spanish kings and queens came to visit the city, receptions and entertainments were often provided for them there. Artists, architects, and writers from the Modernista movement, the Catalan equivalent of Art Nouveau, came up to the park to stretch their legs and think great thoughts.

Here, for example, is an 1898 photograph of Joan Maragall i Gorina (1860-1911), Catalonia’s greatest poet, along with the painter, critic, and architect Miquel Utrillo i Morlius (1862-1934), father of the French painter and Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). The two men are shown standing just outside the park’s Danaë Pavilion, which (I believe) is shown in the original work beneath Picasso’s painting. Picasso knew and admired both of these men, as well as the others with whom they formed the artistic and intellectual avant-garde in Barcelona while he was an art student there.

Maragall

In fact, Miquel Utrillo was one of the first publishers to take Picasso’s work seriously. He not only helped to organize and promote Picasso’s first participation in a commercial art exhibition, at the Sala Parés gallery in Barcelona in 1901, but he also wrote about the young artist in magazines which he had either co-founded or published. Meanwhile, Maragall’s embrace of a kind of intellectual anarchism, combined with imagery of curving, undulating landscape being evocative of the female form in his poetry and essays, had a lifetime impact on Picasso’s work.

Given the fairly apparent relationship of the landscape painting to the appearance of the gardens around the temple of Danaë at Horta, as well as knowing something more about the importance of Horta as a location during the period of time when Picasso painted over this scene, I’m fairly confident that this identification is correct, as far as subject matter. As to who actually painted the landscape, there are various possibilities to consider.

Could the landscape have been the work of a fellow, struggling young artist in Barcelona, who was unsatisfied with his painting and about to throw it away, when the equally-struggling Picasso asked if he could take the canvas? Could it be a canvas pinched from Picasso’s artist father, José Ruiz y Blasco, who taught at the art school in Barcelona and, when not painting images of birds, painted somewhat conventional landscapes and seascapes? Or could it be an early, teenaged work by Picasso himself, left behind in the closet at his parents’ apartment, which he decided to repurpose rather than throw in the trash?

Perhaps science will be able to tell us, but for now, that’s one mystery solved, another to go.

In “The Artist’s Garden”

“The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920”, is a terrific exhibition showcasing American painting, drawing, design, and photography during a period when the idea of American home life changed completely. With greater wealth and greater amounts of free time on their hands, middle class Americans began to make their homes into places where the outside was just as cared for as the inside. Your teak patio furniture, trellis hung with wisteria, and stamped concrete garden pavers grew out of this change in attitude toward what gardens, and indeed being outdoors, was all about.

The first observation to be made is that this is a very attractive, easy to like exhibition. One could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that this is merely an assemblage of paintings of pretty women and flowers, colorful glass objects, and tiny photographs. Yet as one moves through the rooms, the idea takes hold of what a profound shift in thinking the American psyche underwent during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.

Until a century ago, most Americans used the land surrounding their homes primarily for growing their own food and keeping livestock – Pauline Wayne, the last cow to graze on the White House lawn, departed for Wisconsin in 1913. By the middle of the 19thcentury however, a significant ground shift was beginning to take place in the relationship of man to the land, which is well-documented in this exhibition. The barn yard gradually became the back yard, a haven from the brave but ugly new world of belching factory smokestacks and clanging streetcars.

This change in attitude toward the use of one’s property went hand-in-glove with the effort to try to beautify American cities. Students of architecture and urban planning will be familiar with the fruits of this greater movement. Temporary installations such as the Philadelphia Bicentennial Exposition of 1876, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1905, had permanent echoes across the American landscape, from Central Park in New York, to the Macmillan Plan and the National Mall here in Washington.

While your average, middle class American could not dream of achieving anything similar with their more modest means and surroundings, writers and artists still wanted to encourage those of more ordinary means to make their home gardens as beautiful as possible, as a way of fostering civic pride and cleanliness. It was all very well to construct grand boulevards and expansive parks in American towns and cities.  If they led to ramshackle houses whose grounds consisted of little more than chicken coops and piles of dirt however, the whole “effect” which these reformers were trying to achieve would be lost.

The strength of this exhibition is not only in some of the individual paintings, sculptures, and decorative art objects, but also in stepping back and taking a look around at the America which this show evokes as a whole. What is particularly telling is that fact that on the whole, the lifestyle evoked by this exhibition is not at all unfamiliar to us, even more than a century later.  True, we do not dress as the people in these images do, and our homes and gardens may be somewhat less fussy than those celebrated in some of these images.

Yet even though generations have passed, we still continue to hold to the ideals of making our home and garden simultaneously a place to relax and to show off – ideals which were fostered by the artists and designers featured in this exposition. Thus the painting of a lady reading a letter at her dining room table, silhouetted by open French doors leading onto a sunny garden patio shaded by a pergola, with some slight alterations could come out of a contemporary magazine spread. The fact that I daresay many of my readers spend their Saturdays mowing lawns, pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, and so on, none of which has anything to do with the production of food and everything to do with what it means to be in the American middle class, originally comes from the era which produced these works of art.

Rather than comment on the individual pieces in the exhibition, if you care to follow me on Instagram, later today I will be posting some photos I took of a number of pieces in the show; just visit this link:

https://instagram.com/wbdnewton/

“The Artist’s Garden” is at The Chrysler until September 6th; it then travels to The Reynolda House in North Carolina, on to The Huntington Library in California, and finally to the Griswold Museum in Connecticut. Whether or not you are particularly interested in American impressionism, this show is a wonderful evocation of a world which, though now long-gone, still has a profound influence on how Americans live and see their homes today.

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